Thursday, August 9, 2018

Checking into Belize

By Capt. Scott Buckley

It is has been a while since posting and we are currently tied up at a marina in Guatemala on Rio Dulce near the town of Frontera.  At last glance at the blog I see we had checked out of Mexico and were planning our trip down to check into Belize. 
Our Mexican Flag is terminal
The geography of Ambergris Cay
San Pedro Belize harbor and outer reef
We had really enjoyed Mexico but our Mexican flag was showing signs of “a welcome over stayed” so it was time to move on.  By the way the condition of the country’s curtesy flag is anpted and accurate way to determine maximum dwell time in various country’s. 
Our plan was to checking into the port called San Pedro at the tip of Ambergris Cay. By the way if you were wondering why some bodies of land surrounded by water are called islands and some are called cay (pronounced keees) it has to do with their elevation.  Cays are low islands.  Because they are low they get little in the way of rain.  Island have elevation and can get daily rain fall in the higher elevations. 
San Pedro from the Anchorage
Anyway we had to negotiate the cut thru the reef off of San Pedro which turned out to be more terrifying when doing it for the first time than it actually was once there.  We found an anchorage once past the reef off the town beach.  I dove on the anchor and found the holding to be very bad.  There was about 1 inch of sand over a big flat rock bottom.  We moved the anchor to the grass beds where the sand was a little deeper and the anchor had a chance to dig in.  The entire time we were getting SV Kooky Dance anchored and helping our buddy boat also get anchored we were calling the port authority on the radio for instruction to check in.  We got no response so we decided to jump in the dinghies and head to shore and find customs and immigration.  So off we went full of our own righteous indignation of doing the right thing in the face of such bureaucratic inefficiencies.  In about 30 minutes after landing on the beach and making our way into town we were deep into the process of getting kicked out of Belize.  Its funny how righteous indignation turns to full on panic when face immediate deportation from some petty government bureaucrat with a stamp.
When we finally found immigration (our first stop in the check in process) we presented our papers and passports.  The agent immediately asked where the rest of the crew was.  We explained that the guide instructed that only the captains go ashore to check in.  The agent wanted to know what guide I was referring to.  I told her the Bible (a little background the Capt Freya’s guide to the western Caribbean is considered be the Bible by sailors in this area of the world, it can be a bit of a mistake to go quoting the Bible to those land locked individuals that have a different literary work in mind when you go throwing the bible’s name around in vain.  It can lead to stern looks and some reverse righteous indignation).  The agent reviewed the documents and asked where was the stamped crew list also known of as the “zarpe”.  I showed  the agent our crew list however it did not meet the definition of a zarpe as it was not stamped by the authorities from our last country of departure.  My crew list was still stamped by the USA but not Mexico.  My companion buddy boats did not have any crew lists.  I explained to the agent our challenges of checking out of Mexico in Xcalak but she was having none of it.  We would not be able to check into Belize without a stamped Zarpe and we should leave immediately.  Drats and double drats.  As the discussion became a bit more animated it attracted the attention of some other agents that came over either for the entertainment value or curiosity.  One of the agents (to whom I am forever grateful) looked at our paper work and pointed out to our agent that our passports were stamped correctly and that our Mexican customs paper work was in order and that the only thing missing was the zarpe.  Our agent asked what could she do and the other agent suggested that she could have us create a crew list here and get it stamped into Belize.  I was all for this.  Our agent reluctantly produced some blank crew list forms to fill out. 
By this time I was sweating so profusely that I quickly reduced the form to paper machete and had to ask her for another and to dispose of the wad of sweaty pulp.  I actually think that the agent wanted to just get rid of us more than anything else.  We finished with immigration paid about $75 USD (for which I paid $80 and received no change darn it) and we were sent to customs.
student sitting at desk writing in notebook
Oddly enough Belize Customs is run by 12 yr olds.  At least that is how they looked to me.  Well this 12 yr old starts lecturing me that I and my compadres had done the check-inPaintball-Gun procedure all wrong.  I was to stay on the boat and they would come to me.  This tiny infant of a person also explains that by coming ashore unchecked that I may have already distributed contraband or engaged in all sorts of illegal activities.  When I explained that we had called for the port authority on the VHF marine radio for 1 and half hours prior to coming ashore we were further lectured on the purpose of the checking fees were to provide this (We come to your boat) service.  When I explained we had called on the radio again we were told the marina where were tied up at would provide this service.   I point out the marina had shallow draft and that we were all sailboats and had to anchor out in the deeper water and that sailboats rarely tie up at marinas (I so wanted to add “Punk” at the end of that explanation but held my tongue).  Again the wee boy said we could just telephone them and began to lecture us and I lost a little patience and asked he hold the lecture for now.  Things got very quiet and my request may have lacked the correct amount of decorum in this case but I pointed out we were arriving from another country and had not even entered Belize to procure a local telephone to call them.  Besides what is wrong with calling them on the VHF radio like we do in every other country.  Turns out they did not have a radio but had plans to get one in the future.  Did I mention that these guys had guns?
The lectures from this particular 12 yr old stopped and we started filling out the customs paperwork.  He did point out that this paperwork would be some of the paper that would have been handle during their “at our boat” visit.  A stony glance seemed to stem that stream of conversation.  Once we were finished with Customs and relieved of some additional cash we were passed to the health and agricultural department.  This agent was a slightly older person of say 13 or 14 years of age and had not been privy to my level (or lack thereof) enjoyment of being on the receiving end of lectures from underage bureaucrats.  So once again the lectures about us coming to shore before the “at our boat” visit started anew.  I had even less patience for this additional instruction on what I should have done and the animation of the discussion attracted the attention of the afore mentioned customs agent that explained things to the new guy.  Did I mention both of these guys had guns?  I only mention it because I gave brief thought to grabbing one and putting it to my head.  It was like one of their “at your boat” services that I was just now becoming aware of.  They, not only, provide the motivation for ending oneself but also the means.  How thoughtful.
It bothered me that there was no right solution for sailboats.  The bureaucratic children did not have a radio and it seemed the only way to summon customs and immigration to the boat was to call or get a local agent to call them.  Neither solution applied well to sailboats coming into Belize for the first time.  Then I suggest that is the correct method to dinghy into a marina and get them to call customs out to your vessel.  The young people seemed to like this solution but I cannot say if the marina would be agreeable.  My guess is a little patronage would grease those wheels enough to make that happen and maybe the price of a Belikin Beer.
I am not saying the these children were corrupt but they had a certain carefree way of doing business that this adult found a little unsettling.  I paid the various fees (such as the “customs” fee and the “you don’t like my lecturing” fee and the “you are look at my gun too intently” fee) with US dollars and the smallest denomination I had was a $20.  If the fee was $25 then I would hand over $40 and expect some change.  They did not have change and when asked where I could get change they would say they closed in 2 minutes….for the rest of the year and they were armed.  I think I mentioned that.  I received no receipt and the money was tucked into their pants pocket.  I’m sure it is all above board but not what I am use to.
So we were checked in thru immigration, customs and health and had one final stop with the port captain or authority.  We ran into the immigration agent (oddly she did not seemed overjoyed to see us) and I asked here where I might find the port Captain.  She said we might find him down at the ferry terminal and that were should get a cab there so off we sped.  We waited and we waited.  I think we got there at 4PM and finally caught up with the port Captain around 6:15PM (the same day which is a win).  The funny bit and there is this funny bit to this story, you would not believe who drove up to the ferry terminal.  The immigration agent.  The poor woman tried to gather her things from the golf cart and scramble inside but I was quicker and asked if she knew where the Port Captain was.  She made a call and talked to someone (I don’t actually know who she talked to is could of been her sister) but she told us that he would be along soon.  So we waited some more and eventually he showed up with a car load of band instruments in his car.  Port Captaining may not be his main job.  We paid more money which is always the highlight of international travel. 
In Belize you pay the port authority the equivalent of $2.50/day while you are in Belize.  The Port Captain asked us how many days we wanted to pay for.  At this point I was hot, very thirsty and a wee bit fed up with all the fun and seriously thought  answering; “just today thankyou” but instead opted for 2 weeks.  We ended up staying much longer and enjoyed Belize so much that we intend on returning next season.

Monday, May 28, 2018

The Xcalak Exit

By Capt. Scott Buckley

Let me start out by saying that I like Xcalak however as you read further you will undoubtedly wonder why.  It will become clear near the end of this story.
We last left Ascension Fleet on our exit from Bahia Espirito Santo, Mexico and our trip to Xcalak to check out of Mexico before sailing to Belize.  Checking out is a vital part of travel from one country to the next and is a bit alien to North Americans.  You must show that you legally left the last country you visited and that your stay was without criminal incident.  It seems reasonable until you actually have to do it.  So far the only place we had been outside the USA by sailboat was the Bahamas and the country we went to after the Bahamas was again the USA which does not require that you checkout of the last country you visited.  So checking out was new to us.  Like I said we had declined to checkout of Mexico when we were in Isla Mujeres for a couple of reasons. 
1. When you checkout of Mexico you have 48 hrs to actually exit the country.
2. There were places in Mexico farther south than Isla Mujeres that we wanted to visit.
3. After we left Isla Mujeres it would likely be many weeks before we actually left Mexico so we required a place to check out further south.
Sounds reasonable but actually finding a place farther south that would facilitate a sailboat and crew checkout proved more difficult than imagined.  There were conflicting information, iffy port and anchorages, the incredulous looks from the Mexican port authorities, but that did not stop us from thinking we could figure it out.  The first plan was to checkout in Mahahual where a new cruise ship dock had been constructed.  They obviously checked those cruise ships in and out so some of us (I was not one of them) reasoned that those that took care of the cruise ships would welcome the extra pain and suffering of dealing with tight fisted penny pinching sailors.  A couple of us did not like this plan due to the anchoring conditions at the cruise ship dock and what we did not like was there was no protection from the seas driven by the almost constant trade winds.  This would mean anchoring off a lee shore (a big no-no for any sailor) and would mean landing a dinghy in the surf.  Landing your dinghy is a surf is the stuff YouTube videos are made for because such a launch from or landing on such a shore is often a spectacular disaster.  There was a small port about 4 miles away but the stated draft (read water depth) in this port was 3 and 4 feet.  While this is plenty for the local fishing boats it was woefully insufficient for most sailboats.  Add to that we would need to figure out a way to get from the port up to the cruise ship dock.
Our next option was Xcalak.  Xcalak had a decent harbor with sufficient depth and the narrow cut through the reef, while terrifying seemed doable.  What was in question was if any facilities existed for checking out.  You know like customs and immigration.  Baring that was there a taxi we could get and drive up to Mahahual and checkout with the cruise ships?
So armed with all these doubts we confidently sailed out of Bahia Espirito Santo in route to Xcalak.  Well of course the best laid plans don’t always go without a hitch.  When we woke up early the next morning there were some squalls to the east of us.  Some in the Ascension fleet expressed nervousness about leaving.  I wanted to yell on the radio; “to put on the big boy pants and pick up your anchors ladies”.  however I had not put on big boy pants so I remained silent but pointed out if we delay then it would mean getting into Xcalak late in the evening and trying to come thru the reef cut with bad light.  That the right course was to delay our departure all day and sail overnight and get there in the AM.  Oddly enough they all agreed readily (The 1st mate and I exchanged surprise looks) provided I could predict no squalls the following morning.  Even though I or anyone else for that matter could not predict such small localized weather event like squalls that pop up and die out quickly I said; “Sure.” 
Given the additional time in Bahia Espirito Santo Tamera and I moved the boat over to another reef and went snorkeling.  At 4PM that evening we hauled anchorage and set sail south.
We sailed on thru the night and passed Mahahual at around 4 AM.  It was difficult to make out much in the dark.  This location is also known as Costa Maya and is a brand new cruise ship terminal.  While it makes a good location for cruise ships to tie for the day it is not so hospitable to anchored sail boats because it is open to the sea.  
We arrived at the cut in the reef off of Xcalak, Mexico the next morning at around 10AM.  We sailed up to the waypoint and lined our boat up with the range marker on shore and sailed into the harbor at Xcalak.  Once anchored we called the port Captain on the the VHF radio and got a short response to report there the next day with our documents.  We jumped in our dinghies and went ashore.  We landed the dinghies near the big concrete municipal dock on a seaweed choked beach that smelled really awful.  There was no way to get to the beach without walking thru about 20 ft. of this fetid water.  Did I mention it was also hot.
The only map of Xcalak we had which turned out to be horribly dated
The Port Captain's office in Xcalak
Xcalak Anchorage
The main drag in Xcalak
We walked around a bit and the town looked mostly abandoned.  There was a very dusty tienda which seemed as surprised to see us as we were disappointed the stores contents which was mostly dust.  We kept walking on and I could tell the groups spirits were falling.   Did I mention it was hot and we did not find any place for a cool drink.  We did run into a resident expat that indicated there was more going on on the southern end of the town.  We also happened to see the Port Captains office.  The guys wanted to check and see what was necessary to check out of Mexico.  It was only about noon so there was time to start asking.  Besides it might be a chance to get out of the sun.  It was starting to get hot or did I already mention that.
The office looked abandoned but the door appeared open so I called out to see if anyone was there.  A young man came out named Alberto and beckoned us to come in.  Being the only one in the Ascension fleet group to speak any Spanish  I began explaining our desire to checkout of Mexico so we could sail on to Belize.  Alberto was a bit surprised to find out we had not already checked out in Isla Mujeres.  Surprised that we did not already have our “despacho”.  I explained the 48 hr rule and said we had intended to check out of Mahahual.  Could we get a taxi or hire someone with a car to drive us to Mahahual so we could check out.  Alberto said it was likely to be a bit more complicated than that as the official there would likely want to see our vessels there.  I then explained the bad anchorages and the shallow harbor.  Both things Alberto readily agreed with.  While Alberto was part of the Mexican Navy he reported to the Port Captain and they conferred on the situation.  I can’t say I understood much of what they said as my Spanish in very rusty and I was sweating buckets in there nice office.  Alberto made some calls to various officials and even to the immigration agent in San Pedro, Belize to try and figure out what to do.  I brought up Mahahual again and Alberto explained there was no immigration office in Mahahual.  While they had customs there was no need for immigration since the cruise ship don’t carry people that immigrate.  They only carry day trippers that show up the late morning and all leave by 3 PM the same day to their air conditioned staterooms with their trinkets, sunburns and a belly full of watered down drinks.
Alberto said he would look into the matter however it was likely that someone would need to make a trip to Chetumal.  Chetumal is on the northern border with Belize and is a port of entry into Mexico.  Chetumal had the required immigration and customs facilities.  So you ask; “why did you not check out there, oh wise Captain Sir?  Well, there is no way for deep draft sailboat to sail there and Xcalak was the closest Mexican port to Chetumal without going thru Belize (by the way can the sarcastic attitude, thank you).  Checking out of Mexico was still the prerequisite to checking into Belize so we ended up right at the beginning again.  Did I mention it was incredibly hot.
So we left the Xcalak Port Captain’s office while Alberto did his checking and began our search for something cool to drink like beer.  We started walking towards the southern end of town in search of “Toby’s Restaurant”.  The friendly expats we had met earlier had said Toby speaks English and pretty much knew everything about the area.  I was really hoping to run into Toby.  While my Ascension fleet comrades were quite sure that me and Alberto would figure out some way to checkout of Mexico they all had the distinct advantage of not understanding anything that was said.  I on the other hand I had the distinct disadvantage of only understanding about half of what was said and I cannot say I was bubbling with confidence.  Our alternatives if this did not work would be to sail north and return to Isla Mujeres and checkout there and then south again to Belize.  I did not share this concern with the rest of Ascension fleet.
So south we walked and sweated our way to Toby’s.  We got there and ordered beer.  It was so hot that when the beer arrived I did know whether to drink it or pour on my head.  I inquired if Toby” was about (remember my extreme lack of confidence) and found out he was away in Chetumal and would not return until tomorrow evening.  Crap…..double crap.  My Ascension fleet comrades peppered me with questions that I tried to answer honestly as best I could.  They wanted assurances that it would all be OK.  When we ordered a second round of beer we were informed they were now out of beer.   Triple Crap…should have poured it on my head.
The Ascension Fleet Gang from L to R: Candy, Scott, Greg, Pam, Rene, Don and Michael.
1st Mate on Kooky Dance (Tamera)
Ascension Dudes
Ascension Dudettes

So we left Toby’s and started wondering back the fetid beach but before we get to the dinghies that were floating peacefully like turds in a punch bowl (remember the smell when we arrived well it had not improved and the day got warmer) we ran into Alberto.  Alberto want me to go with him to Chetumal with all 4 boat’s documentation and passports.  I asked that another come with us and Greg from SV Arawa volunteered.  The rest of the folks from Ascension Fleet would go back to the boat to get the required documentation, money and passports and meet us back on the beach in 20 minutes.  Chetumal is 250 km by road from Xcalak.  As it was going on to 4 PM it did not seem possible to get there before office hours ended.  So we waded thru the poop soup where the dinghies waited and pushed them off with their crew to go and collect the required papers while Greg and I waited on the beach in poop water soaked shoes.  It was still hot but there was an on shore breeze that wafted in the various aroma bouquet from the decomposing seaweed and fish that was piled a foot thick on the beach.   The heat was still high and it accelerated the bacterial grow rate in our wet shoes which was a plus. 
Chetumal and Xcalak are geographically close by road they are 250km apart.
Soon Alberto, Greg and I were barreling down the road at suicidal speeds toward Chetumal.  We passed thru some very remote areas over some very rutted roads and I could not stop worrying that if we broke down or just got a flat tire (I had already seem that Alberto did not have a functioning spare tire as we threw our kit into the trunk) we would likely have to resort to cannibalism before someone found us.  Since we were in the car together for the next 3 hrs. I took the time to practice my Spanish and learn a little about Alberto and the area.  The one thing that really surprised me was Alberto’s dislike of the current Mexican President.  Recently the Port Captain’s offices have been brought into the jurisdiction of the Mexican Navy.  Alberto pointed out that he was was now in the Mexican Navy.  But I pointed out that I thought those things were done to fight corruption.  Alberto rolled his eyes and said “Si” but now Jamaica, Venezuela, and others refused to trade with Mexico.  They refuse to have to trade through the Mexican military.  While I can understand this to some extent their is obviously more going on.  Alberto’s contention was that while the intension of the Presidents administration were well meaning the impacts on small ports like Xcalak have been devastating.  The only industries that have not suffered are the well protected tourist industry.  When I joked that Cancun was the Capitol of Quintana Roo I got a very dirty look and a curt explanation that while Cancun may think that, it was absolutely not true.  Merida was the capitol and cultural center of Quintana Roo.  Cancun was even really Mexican.  
But on we went and as we approached Chetumal the countryside gave way to small towns and then a modern city.  Chetumal was pretty amazing and after our travels in the small backwater of Mexico and was pretty overwhelming at first.  Alberto was driving around looking for something and we stopped and a very upscale shopping mall. 
Alberto was talking to someone on his mobile phone and walking towards a dark section of the parking lot at the mall where there were some men waiting for us in the shadows.  I stopped short of going into the shadows and beckoned the men out into the light where I could see them.  They came forward and Alberto introduce us to one man from immigration and another from customs.  Alberto again explained to these men what we were trying to do and what was planned.  The immigration and customs guys would take our passports and money and process them.  We were instructed to wait here at the mall for their return.  We waited and Greg and I joked that we may have just pulled off the most non violent and exceedingly cordial mugging in history.  But they did return with our stamped passports and documents.  It was actually a bit cliché when they finally returned.  We were walking around the parking lot looking for them and a car flashed their headlights at us like in the movies.  We made the exchange and we quickly left the area. 
We still had other things to do apparently and Alberto now drove into some very questionable sections of town.  Alberto got lost and appeared to be way too nervous for my liking.  He was so busy trying to find his way he was ignoring my inquires of; “what is going on?, “Where are we going?” “will my death be quick and with minimal pain?” The fact that Alberto was not answering did not sit well and I was waiting for some toughs to jump out from the alley and pull us from the car.  It was at this time that I was glad the Greg came with me.  While he may not have been able to do much (we were both retired engineers so while we could design brilliant and efficient defense weapons, developing personal hand to hand self defense skills had remained on both of our “to-do” lists) it would be good to have some company as we bled out from the numerous mortal wounds inflicted on us  in some darkened alley.  The other bright spot in my consternation of our present situation was if they stole our shoes as well they would be wondering, for a while, what that smell was as they drove their get away car off the scene of the crime.
We finally spotted a guy out in the street talking into his mobile phone and Alberto excitedly exclaimed “That’s him” but in Spanish and pulled over to the side of the street under and dim little street light.  Under this dim little light we met a guy from the Chetumal Port Captain’s office.  He looked through our vessel papers and and took the ones he would need.  I did bring up the crew list at the time but they did not seem interested with my concerns.  I wish they had heeded them a bit more.  This guy would process these documents the next day and Alberto would return to Chetumal on his own to pick them up. 
So after our clandestine parking lot meeting and the dark street meetings we were on our way back to Xcalak.  I was about 10:30PM or later and we still had 250 km to go.  We had not been able to call Ascension Fleet to let them know our whereabouts and ETA so they were undoubtedly worried.   Alberto dropped us off at the beach and we called the fleet to pick us up at the dock in a dinghy.  It was about 1AM.  There were a lot of questions and we promised to give them the full debriefing the next day.
We went into town the next day and found if we landed the dinghies away (about 200 ft) from the municipal dock the beach and water was not smelly or so thickly choked with rotting seaweed.  This was actually closer to the part of town we were more interested in anyway.  There were small stores to provision in, laundry services and beer.  The folks were friendly and I was really beginning to understand what I liked so much about Mexico.  Mexico can and does most things for itself.  I can get Mexican goods and services for almost any need.  What I like about this is for one it is cheap and more importantly that they are not so dependent on the USA.
What I saw in the Bahama’s was a total dependency on imported goods from the USA.  Almost all the food (with the exception of conch) came from the USA and that included fruits and vegetables.  The same was true in Belize where any goods you needed came from the USA or Mexico.  But in Mexico you could buy what you needed from Mexico.  This means if the USA were to wither away the Mexicans could and would go on without them.  I cannot explain why this endears me to Mexico so much but it does and in places like Xcalak that is so far off the tourist foot path that USA products don’t stand a chance of competing with Mexican this market but the wants and needs of the residences do not go unfulfilled.  Another surprise was basket ball.  In this area (as far as I know) basket ball is a lot more popular than soccer.  In fact every school has a basket ball team but may or may not have a soccer team.  The basket ball courts in town are new and freshly painted and well maintained while the abandoned soccer fields are overgrown and falling apart.  I also noticed the basket ball courts are right in the middle of town where the soccer fields our on the outskirts of town as they are generally too big to locate in town.  As we were spending the rest of the week in Xcalak waiting to check out and get some good weather for moving south we did some snorkeling on the reef and enjoyed the town. 
Greg and Candy SV Arawa
Don and Pam SV Rainbow's End
Rene SV Sea Mist
Michael SV Sea Mist
Xcalak from the Anchorage
Thursday morning we reported to the Port Captain's office and met with Alberto who was this time decked out in his full uniform.  He presented us with our papers and we paid him for his services.  We now had 48 hours to leave Mexico.  When I said this to Alberto he said because of the difficulty checking out of Mexico the officials in San Pedro Belize will allow 30 days from date of checkout to entry into Belize.  If only we had known.  It sure sounds good but even at this stage I could not tell you with any degree of certainty that this 30 days statement is true.  I can tell you while we thought we were completely checked out of Mexico we had overlooked one very important detail that almost became a gigantic nightmare. But more about that next time.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Ascension Fleet

By 1st Mate Tamera

On March 24, 2018 we slipped the lines from the Isla Puerto Isla Mujeres Marina and headed out to sea again.  Along with our three buddy boats Sea Mist, Rainbow’s End and Arawa we headed south to Bahia de la Ascension which is 110 miles south so it was going to be an overnight passage and what a passage it was……
Cancun Mexico in the distance as we left Isla Mujeres
SV Arawa sailing south

You might ask why we were doing an overnight passage when we are not that fond of overnight passages.  Our buddy boat friends did not want to do any overnighters but the weather window we had and not wanting to pay for a marina we could get stuck at for a week due to weather with few option led the Captain to suggest to the fleet that we do an overnighter to Bahia Ascension.  The Captain presented the reason why and even though he was worried it would not be received well it went remarkably well.  His reason were the forecasted bad weather and the fact we could hold up in Ascension for as long as needed without incurring any cost and it could be a cool place to explore.

Since we were going to be in VHF radio contact all night we decided our group needed a name so we became THE ACENSION FLEET and from this point forward that is how we called each other on the radio. 
When we left the wind were out of the east and were behind the island of Isla Mujeres.   The winds and waves were manageable but then we passed the southern point and the ride became rough.  We all thought once we got past the initial wave action you see when coming out of the lee of an island things would calm down.  Wellllllll that did not happen.
Winds were 20-25 knots and the waves grew to 7-12 feet but nobody wanted to turn back and lose the miles we had gained, so we continued south.  We did hourly check-in’s to make sure everyone was doing OK.  Most of us were fighting sea sickness at some level, some worse than others.  I had my Meclazine in my system and only had a few dizzy spells but never got sick.  That is huge for me who has spent many good sailing days sick as a dog.  We did not get a lot of radio chatter from Rainbow’s End and at the time we blamed in on a weak radio signal.  Turns out it was a little more serious than a bad antenna connection.
As it got dark Pam on Rainbow’s end announced she was at wits end.  Don (her husband) was so sea sick he was completely debilitated.  She was sailing single handed and was falling farther and farther behind the rest of the fleet.  It was now dark and as we were getting close to Playa De Carmen the shore lights and other boat traffic made trying to pick out Rainbow’s End wee little navigation light very difficult.  Sea Mist was unable to pick them up on Radar but Kooky Dance could and they were about 7 miles behind us and sailing too far off shore.  The Captain was concerned for Pam and ran through various scenarios with Pam that included sailing over to Cozumel and anchoring down until daylight.  Pam did not think she could even anchor down by herself safely so decided to sail on with the fleet.   The significance of Rainbow’s End being too far off shore was the north bound Yucatan current that runs at 2 knots and in the wrong direction for those boats heading south.  With all the other things Pam  was fighting on Rainbow's End by also sailing too far off shore she was slowing her progress and a major contributor to why they were falling farther and farther behind.  The Captain explained this to Pam to encourage her to work her way towards shore and shallower water but it was a difficult sell.  What sailor wants to take their boat towards a reef strewn shore, at night, alone.   But Pam knew the Captain was right and summoned up her courage and worked her tiny vessel towards the reef and the certain destruction they could bring.
The captain pointed out that we had made exceptional time during the day and had banked up some extra miles that we could now spend by slowing way down and waiting for Rainbow’s End to catch up.  We all did that with Kooky Dance doing most of the slowing and going from the front of the fleet to the rear of the fleet waiting for Rainbow’s end to catch up.  It was starting to work.  The Captain reported they were now 5 miles back but Rainbow’s end was not able to see us.  The light from the shore were too bright and numerous to discern which were boats and which were not.  The Captain used the spot light to help identify Kooky Dance’s location relative to Rainbow’s End.  This worked well and soon Rainbow’s End was within 1 mile of Kooky Dance.  So now Arawa, Rainbow’s End and Kooky Dance were close together and SV Sea Mist had carried on and was about 6 or 7 mile ahead.  This proximity would become very crucial in the next hour or so.  
We passed through Cozumel and Playa Del Carmen around 10:30 PM but the ship and ferry traffic traffic was still busy.   Both the shore of Playa de Carmen and the shore of Cozumel was awash with lights making other vessels and us difficult to see at night.  The AIS system on board Kooky Dance shows imminent collision with every vessel in the area.   Scott spent a good bit of time communicating via VHF radio negotiating with other vessels to keep all three boats in our Ascension fleet safe.
We sailed on thru the night and passed Mahahual at around 4 AM.  It was difficult to make out much in the dark.  This location is also known as Costa Maya and is a brand new cruise ship terminal.  While is make a good location for cruise ships to tie for the day it is not so hospitable to anchored sail boats because it is open to the sea.   The port of Mahahual lays about 2.5 nm south of the cruise ship terminal and while it is technically a port there is only about 4 ft of depth in this port thus making it also inhospitable to  sail boats.  So we sailed on into the night.
SV Rainbow's End
Rene and Michael from SV Sea Mist
Greg and Candy from SV Arawa
Don and Pam from SV Rainbow's End
First anchorage in Bahia Ascension
Our second anchorage farther south in Bahia Ascension
On Sunday, March 25th 11:30 am we arrived at Bahia de le Ascension.  We anchored in 10 feet of muddy bottom near the beach.  The water was a little murky and later became lumpy sea state so we all decided with the bad weather heading our way perhaps we should move further south in the Bahia to Wilson Point to get better protection.  The weather forecast was the next 5 days of strong SE winds and would make our trip south very uncomfortable so we decided to stick it out here.  We moved 5 miles south for better protection.  Bahia de le Ascension is very remote and there was only one small village but we all opted to stay on our boats and when weather permitted we would explore.  We did explore.
Saturday March 31, 2018 – we finally have a break in the weather and we pulled up anchor and was now heading to Bahia Del Esperito Santos 40 miles away.  We left at 0630 am and had a great little sail south.  Scott caught 3 fish but we did not keep any due to the fear of ciguatera poisoning and they were not too big.  It was still fun to catch fish.  At 14:30 we dropped anchor in a beautiful spot behind the reef.  It was beautiful and bouncy.  Scott went snorkeling and said it was a really awesome reef.   Scott said he saw the biggest moray eel he has ever seen anywhere.  The plan was to stay here overnight and get up early and head more to the south BUT mother nature had her own plan.
We woke up to squalls which brought high winds and rain.  The rain part was OK but the high winds also brought high waves.
Our Anchorage in Bahia Espirito Santo
Since we were protected behind the reef The Ascension Fleet decided to wait out the squalls and leave later in the day & make it another overnight passage to Xcalak Mexico.  Xcalak at one time was the last check out point in Mexico for sailors heading south but that has changed to a place called Mahahal (a cruise port).  But our plan was to sail to Xcalak and when it was time to leave Mexico we would take a Taxi to Mahahal and check out that way.  Of course that did not work out either, but that will have to wait until the next blog post.
We arrived in Xcalak on Monday April 2, 2018 at 10:00 am…..Captain Scott will tell the story of this place, checking out of Mexico and tell of the great place Xcalak Mexico.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Isla Mujeres Mexico and South.

By Captain Scott Buckley

As I write this post about our experiences in Mexico I am actually in Guatemala.  We have cruised Belize and traveled up the Rio Dulce in Guatemala and are at a Marina.  Cleaning up the boat washing clothes, taking long showers and yes catching up on blog post because we have INTERNET.  Tamera always says the same thing when we are anchored at some remote island with no one around she will pick up her phone and announce that she “cannot believe there is NO INTERET”.  I usually reply, “I know I hate this place”.

I want to talk more about the magic of Belize and the jewel that is Guatemala but to do justice to the chronology of the blog I have to cover those times that are already fading into memory.

In Isla Mujeres Mexico we checked into our second foreign country as cruisers.  It is a bit harder than it was in the Bahamas because of the language barrier.  As well there are much fewer cruising boats that visit the Western Caribbean than the Eastern Caribbean therefore it is a little less cruiser friendly.  To add to the general confusion for first timers like us the system has recently changed.  The Navy took over the Port Captains duties and removed many services such as immigration and custom office up and down the eastern Yucatan coast.  I believe this effort is to combat corruption but it is causing problems for many Mexican as this was their way of doing business with Cuba, Venezuela, Colombia, Trinidad and others.   While I applaud the intent of this action the impact has been hard on the towns down the Yucatan coast that relied on trading other than the tourist trade.  For us and those traveling with us this lost of official services would prove problematic later on.
'I used the services of an agent to help us get through checking into Mexico.  I did not plan it this way but when we arrived in Isla Mujeres I guess I had been running on nerves.  In the past 4 days after leaving St. Joe Florida I had only slept an hour or two.   Once we were tied up at a dock I went ashore alone to begin clearing in the crew and vessel.  Within 30 to 40 minutes of walking to this and that office the exhaustion began to overwhelm me.  I could no longer think straight and my Spanish was becoming horribly mixed with Portuguese, English and even some Russian.  I knew I was screwing up the discussion but my mind was not functioning correctly.  Words kept flying out of my mouth that I knew were wrong but for the life of me I could not summon the correct Spanish ones.  As I walked I felt myself being pulled to the ground by a weariness that I had not experienced in decades.  I no longer wanted to return to the boat but instead find a shady tree to lie down under and drift off.  I asked the Marina office clerk to recommend an agent to help me complete the checking documentation cha cha.  I met him and somehow passed along enough information to get him started checking the crew and vessel into Mexico.  At the time he asked me if I also wanted to check out of Mexico.  At the time that made no sense to my already mottled brain.  I did not know how long I would be in Mexico and there was so much more to see along the coast.  Since you only have 48 hours to get out the country after checking out I wanted to wait.  Turns out I was wrong.

The Crew of Kooky Dance after checking into Mexico.  Scott, Tamera and Bud.  Bud is the handsome one.
But, we were in Isla Mujeres.  Me and my best friend (Tamera my 1st mate) had worked hard save our money, delayed our gratification so that someday we could sail our own little boat to see the world at our pace and not the pace of some tour guide.  We kept looking at each other at odd times and asking; “you know what?”.  “We’re in Isla Mujeres”.  Occasionally it would be followed by a high five slapping of hands.  Sometime we would asking each other at the same time. 
The lovely 1st mate infront of the "Puerto Isla Mujeres marina sign.
We stayed at the Marina for an extra day to that it would be easy to get Bud our crewmate from St. Joe FL to the Cancun ferry so he could catch his plane back home. Back home has a new meaning for Tamera and me.  We have no home in the USA.  Our little boat Kooky Dance IS our home.  Where she goes we go.  So she went and anchored down in the Isla Mujeres anchorage for the next several weeks.  I was keen on meeting some cruisers and was hoping to hook up with some buddy boats heading south that could show us the way.  It is funny how things work out.
In many popular cruiser anchorages there are cruiser radio nets broadcasted almost every morning.  On these nets new boats are welcomed to the area, departing vessel get to say good bye, announcements are made and questions get answered.  Every new boat to an anchorage with a local cruiser’s radio net listens every morning and that includes us.   There was a call on this particular net in Isla Mujeres for volunteers to act as net controllers.  The “net Controller” organizes, schedules and grants permission for communication on the net.  They call for priority or medical traffic, they pass on weather forecasts and make useful safety announcements.  If someone want to pass traffic on the net they announce their vessel’s name and wait to be recognized.   The “net controller” keeps things flowing and controls radio traffic so that people are not broadcasting at the time or what is commonly called walking on each other. 
The 1st mate suggested if I really want to meet other cruisers then I should volunteer to be net controller.  Well I immediately began cussing her and calling her less than nice name.  Why?  Because she was right.  What did I know about being a net controller?  Who in their right minds liked public speaking in high school?  But, I could not think of a reasonable argument to counter her logic (Dam woman).  So I volunteered and thought I would only be doing it for 1 day a week but ended up doing it as much as 5 days a week.  But, Tamera turned out to be right.  Tamera and I got better known and met other cruiser and some turned out to be also head south and agreed to buddy boat with us.  The issue of who was leading who quickly evolved shortly after we once got underway. 
I should write about our stay in Isla Mujeres before I start droning on about leaving.  We soon left the marina after we took Bud to the airport and went to the anchorage out near town.  From here we needed to dinghy into town.  As there are no official dinghy docks and some businesses that had docks reserved their use to customers you generally had to find unofficial places to deposit your dinghy while you walked to town
Tying the dinghy up to the tree on the beach.
Sunset in t Isla Mujeres Anchorage
Stopping for lunch while provisioning
Isla Mujeres 1
Isla Mujeres 2
Isla Mujeres 3
El Milagro
Isla Mujeres was pretty friendly to cruisers for a predominately tourist driven town.  The streets teamed with souvenir vendor tour boat operators and taxis.  But expensive restaurants were plentiful and markets were easy and cheap for provisioning.  We made friends with some other cruiser that were also headed south and played around Isla Mujeres for the next 3 weeks. 
Swinging around in the Anchorage
Anchor watch track.  The boat moves around a bit when
at anchor.  Winds shift and tidal current changes 
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