Monday, 7 August 2017

Of Whale Sharks and Turtles and Mojitos!

We have been in Isla for a month now, and have settled into life here quite comfortably.  The weather has been consistently hot and humid, with very little rain, but we are gearing up for a potential visit from Tropical Storm Franklin.  We think it will pass well to the south of us, but are preparing for it nonetheless - provisions bought, extra water on board, lines checked, etc.  At the very least, we will likely get some heavy rain, which may serve to break the humidity, and that would be a good thing.  The port is closed today to any boats under 40 feet in length, which means no tourist boats, which in turn means that we are not subject to the effects of their wakes as they pass by our marina.

When I say that we have settled into life here, I mean that we have been enjoying what the island has to offer - beautiful sandy beaches, warm clear water for swimming, good food, refreshing drinks, and beautiful sunsets almost every night.   We have made some new friends in the cruiser community, and are also getting to know some of the local residents.

Did I mention great food, refreshing drinks and new friends?

Oh!  And we have had a couple of adventures, too!

It was Michael's birthday last week, so we celebrated with a night on the town...drinks at Scorpion Bar (our new local), appetizers at Asia Caribbean, dinner at Rolandi's, and a stroll along Hidalgo street.

On Friday we went swimming with whale sharks.  It was an epic photo fail, so I will try to do them justice with my descriptions of the experience.  There were 10 passengers and 2 crew on the boat - a solid fibreglass thing about 28 feet long.  We left the dock at 8 am and headed out into the open sea between Isla and Cuba.  It was a little rough, with swells of about 4 to 5 feet, and we were all soaked from the waves breaking over the bow of the boat.  We got to the general area where the sharks had been the day before after about 90 minutes of pounding through the waves.  We could see several other boats around us, all of them looking for the sharks.

The whales were spotted about 15 minutes from our location, and we headed in that direction, as did every other boat out there.  It was chaos!  It's a highly regulated experience, meaning that each boat must be licensed to take people out, there are no more than 10 passengers on any boat, and only 2 people from each boat (plus their guide) are allowed in the water at any time.  However, each boat was jockeying to get their swimmers close to the action, then again to pick them up when their turn was over and the next 2 were getting in.

In the midst of all of this were the whale sharks.  Massive, gentle creatures just trying to feed on the krill that is carried by the strong currents out in the deep water.  Our guide estimated there were roughly 200 sharks there that day.  It really didn't matter which direction you looked, they were there, looming out the murky distance, cavernous mouths open to suck in as much water as possible to then filter the krill out as they push the water out through their gills.  They are dark gray, with white circles all over, and their skin is soft and velvety over incredibly powerful muscle.  Michael took a hit from one that came from behind, and it knocked the breath out of him.

I was in awe, and giggling like a kid as I was having so much fun.  But not everyone was happy.  Many of those waiting their turn succumbed to seasickness as they sat on wallowing boats in heavy seas.  I was lucky.

After we had all seen as much as we wanted to see, we headed back towards Isla for part 2 of the trip - snorkelling a reef near Playa Norte here on the island.   Our group agreed, however, that we didn't want to snorkel, but just wanted to go to the beach.  While we relaxed in the calm shallow water, our captain made fresh ceviche for lunch.  Delicious.  We were home by mid afternoon, happily exhausted.

The next morning we were just about to pour coffee when a call came over the VHF radio from our friend Kat in the anchorage.  She had word of a turtle in distress on the Carib side of the island.  In fact, she (the turtle) had come ashore to lay her eggs during the night, and fallen into a crevice in the rocks.  She was on her side and couldn't move at all.  A tourist staying in the house had watched her lay her eggs, but was unable to prevent her falling in the crevice, and could not get her out on his own.  Calls to the turtle rescue group on the island had gone unanswered.  But the word was getting out on social media, and Kat rallied a few of us to go an do what we could.

The people who were with her had covered her with a wet towel that they kept soaking with sea water to keep her cool and hydrated.  Someone else was holding a big umbrella over her to keep the rising sun off her, and the guys set to work moving some rather large rocks to make a clear path for her once they got her out of the crevice.  Once the path was cleared, they turned their attention back to the turtle.  They looped some ropes around her shell, and used them to lift her forward bit by bit.  A couple of lifts, and a good push from behind, and her flippers were free, and she was out of the crevice, back on the flat.  She quickly propelled herself forward towards the incoming tide - one, two, three strong strokes and she was gone, looking very strong and determined.  We all cheered and whistled and grinned and laughed, knowing that without our help she surely would have drowned - total strangers coming together for a wonderful cause.

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

It's Official

We went to Cancun a couple of days ago to complete the temporary import permit paperwork for the boat.  After a few minor glitches, we finally got it done and received our permit.  The boat can stay here for 10 years, while we have to leave every 180 days...only for a day or two, after which we can come back and get the next 180 days.  They make it very easy.

We came home to a wonderful dinner put on by the marina/hotel staff...barbequed chicken, grilled red snapper, grilled grouper (both done mexica style with tomatoes, onions and peppers and wrapped in banana leaves) and lots of sides like beans, rice, salad, salsa, guacemole, bread and tortillas.

Hotel guests and boat people mixed and mingled as we all sat at long tables together.  Our table had 6 from Denmark, 3 from England, 1 American and us from Canada.  We all had a wonderful time, and only broke it up when the bugs got bad.  At $15US each for food, BYOB, it was a very good deal, and we are looking forward to the next one.

It's hot here...really, really hot.  Humidex today has already reached 119F, so we are not planning to do much other than float in that nice shady pool, and drink lots of ice water.  My most valued possession right now is my insulated sippy cup (thanks to sister Jill).

Sunday, 9 July 2017

El Milagro - Home Sweet Home

We have always loved Mexico, but what a treasure this place is!

Isla Mujeres is a small island off the coast near Cancun.  It is very laid back, and we have been able to completely relax after a rather stressful couple of weeks.  We haven't been here very long, but already are so 'at home'.

The marina is lovely.  It only has space for a handful of boats, but it is also a small hotel, so there are lots of people wandering around.  It is one of the prettiest properties I think I have ever seen, with little nooks and corners scattered around, and muskoka chairs strategically placed beneath huge coconut palms.  The pool is completely shaded too, which at first seems odd.  But when you think about it, it is such a brilliant idea...with temperatures in the high 90s and humidex over 100, nobody wants to be in the sun.

There's a movie theatre with a huge projection screen and air conditioning, a games room and book exchange, bbqs and grills, and a fully equipped kitchen which we are welcome to use.  Two outdoor showers with giant shower heads are my personal favourite.

Brightly coloured tiles decorate everything....tables and counters, walls, and of course the staircases.

And the staff are fabulous.  Every day someone comes by to make sure everything is OK, and they will all go out of their way to make sure that everything is perfect.

Love this place already.  I may never want to leave!!

Monday, 3 July 2017

Maria La Gorda to Isla Mujeres, Mexico

After several days in Maria La Gorda, Michael and I decided that we were not going to venture further along the south coast, but would head for Isla Mujeres, Mexico as soon as the weather was suitable for the crossing.

Cuba was a bit disappointing for us, and we were ready to leave.  So we got our weather window, said our goodbyes to Patrick &Jaqueline, headed back to Los Morros at Cabo San Antonio to check out of the country, and were up and away shortly after 7 the next morning.  It was a bit windier than we would have liked, but all reports said it would settle, which it did....until about 3 pm.  We still had several hours to go, and I will admit it got a little scary at times as Michael struggled to keep us pointed in the right direction (the autopilot was relieved of its duty, as it was unable to keep up with the constantly changing wave directions).

Furniture moved across the salon floor, cupboards disgorged their contents onto the floor, and one of our 5 gallon water jugs crashed onto the galley floor.  We were lucky that nothing broke....we just had a lot of stuff to put away.

We were all extremely happy when we got close enough to the Mexican coast that the seas settled into a pleasant swell, auto was able to resume control, Kokie was able to go to sleep again, and Michael was able to relax.

We got settled into Marina El Milagro, ordered pizza for dinner (real pizza - not Cuban pizza) and collapsed into bed...with no waves crashing into the swim platform, and no swell, I had the best sleep I've had in weeks.

Maria La Gorda to Los Morros              41
Los Morros to Isla Mujeres Mexico    136.5

Total Miles travelled                               887.8

Thursday, 29 June 2017

Cayo Rapado Grande to Maria La Gorda

June 24
Cayo Rapado Grande to Cayo Montano (Ensenada de Anita)  30.5 miles  
Total miles:  627.7

After a night of very little sleep, we were up early to try to extricate ourselves.  We wished each other a perfunctory Happy Anniversary (our 29th) and got down to business.

We were afloat by now, thank goodness, and a quick survey of depths around us made it clear that our best way out was the way we came in, only backwards.   Michael was at the helm, Patrick was in our dinghy, and lifted the bow anchor into it, while I hauled like crazy on the stern anchor line to pull us backwards out of the hole.  As soon as we were clear, Michael was able to engage the engines and drive us further out, to safety.

He dropped an anchor again in plenty of water, and waited while I ferried Patrick back to Cava.  All’s well that ends well, as Shakespeare said, and there didn’t appear to be any damage to the running gear, so we set of in search of a beach at Cayo Buenavista to stop, get in the water, and take a good look.  Unfortunately, there was no beach visible at high tide, so we went back to the original plan and headed to Cayo Montano.

It was a good run, and we saw our first pod of dolphins since we were approaching Veradero six weeks ago.  Happy Anniversary indeed!    We had invited P&J for dinner to help us celebrate, so spent the afternoon getting ready for that.  There were a couple of thunder showers during the day, but nothing that alarmed us.

Jaqueline offered to show me how she cooks lobster, and I jumped at the chance.  Patrick, whose nickname is apparently TopChef, made us a lemon/lime tart  - a recipe from the Ritz in Paris!  We were so looking forward to a nice relaxed evening.

It started to rain just after we had sat down to dinner, and the wind began howling.  We were in the middle of closing screens to keep the rain out when Michael said “Mundy – something’s wrong.  We’re moving!”   I looked over at Cava, and we seemed to be careening towards her at a startling speed.  Michael ran to the bridge to start the engines, and I headed out to the bow to retrieve the anchor, which by now was simply sliding across the bottom and doing absolutely nothing to slow us down.  It was pouring down, and I was soaked to the skin in minutes.

A windlass only works at one speed, and tonight it seemed to be very slow.   As the anchor came up, and I wrestled with the bridle, we actually made contact with Cava.  A good thump as our side rails came into contact with one of her pontoons.  Poor Patrick was helpless to do anything to safeguard his boat, and could only stand and watch as we hurtled towards her.

We tried resetting the anchor, and as Michael reversed to try to set it, Cava’s dinghy line wrapped around our prop, shutting down one engine.  Eventually, we thought we got it set, and Michael went in the water to cut the dinghy free.  It was still pouring down, and crazy windy.  Patrick needed to go and see to his boat, and eventually we cut his line, but there was still a large piece wrapped around our prop.

I yelled at Michael to get out of the water.....we were still drifting!   Again, in the driving rain, we were hauling and resetting the anchor.   This is the stuff of nightmares.  Howling wind, driving rain, zero visibility, shallow water surrounding the boat and mangroves beyond that.  If we couldn’t get it set, we would be running the one engine we had left all night!

Finally, we got the anchor down, and we believed it was set.  Michael sat watching the GPS to monitor our position, while I stood on the aft deck staring out at the mangroves behind us to make sure we weren’t getting any closer.  The dinner table had been abandoned, and lobster tails and rice sat on plates in puddles of rain water that had driven in through the screens we never managed to get down.  Everything was completely soaked.  I was just about to start gathering it all up when Michael saw P&J coming back in their dinghy.  Bless their hearts, they were coming back to finish dinner!!

We poured away the rain water from the plates, and sat down again on wet furniture to finish eating.  And then, of course, we had to have dessert.   This is the only picture from dinner that evening – Patrick’s lemon tart, with Happy Birday inscribed in the meringue!

Needless to say, we didn’t sleep much that night, but there were no more storms and the anchor did hold.

June 25
Cayo Montano to Marina Los Morros, Cabo San Antonio  41.5 miles    
Total miles: 669.2

Michael was up early, and had the remains of Patrick's dinghy line unwrapped from our prop and rudder in about 30 minutes.

An uneventful 5 ½ hours brought us to the marina at Cabo San Antonio, our last stop before rounding the tip of Cuba and getting to the south coast.  We had read that this was a small marina, but were looking forward to staying a couple of nights, tied up to something solid after the excitement of our last two nights.  In fact, this marina can only tie boats to one side of the dock because the windward side is so rough.  And it is a short pier, with only three boat lengths available.  We arrived to find a sailboat rafted to a fishing boat at the end of the dock, two dive boats rafted together behind them, and a big empty space at the inner end.   Unfortunately, that empty space belonged to a Russian flagged sport fishing boat for the month, so we could not tie up to the pier anywhere.  We were forced to anchor, again, in a very exposed little bay, and spent the night being slammed and rocked by waves travelling across the entire bay.

So much for a good night’s sleep.  I’m so tired by now I can barely think straight, and am definitely not a happy camper.

June 26
Los Morros to Maria La Gorda    51.1 miles Total miles:  710.3

We set off again this morning after taking on fuel and water at the dock.   We were lucky, and were told to pull into the Russian’s spot after they had left for their day of fishing, so had a relatively calm 30 minutes while we were there.  Cava went round the other side, and were bounced around constantly while they also refueled.

This passage marks our transition from the Atlantic Ocean on Cuba’s north coast to the Caribbean on the island’s south coast.  As we travelled, we saw the colour of the water change from the green/brown of the mangrove cays to that beautiful blue we all associate with tropical waters.  And the clarity of the water is stunning.  We could clearly see the bottom at 30 feet.

We travelled into the edge of the Yucatan Current, much like the Gulf Stream in that it is very deep and very fast.  Clear skies, light wind and a gentle swell were the order of the day.

This coast of the Bahia de Corrientes seems to be one long beautiful beach.  There is a resort here that is home to an International Diving Centre, and is part of a National Park.  We were preparing to anchor, according to our guide book, but were called into the dock by the staff at the resort.  We were told that anchoring was prohibited (due to an incident a while ago where someone dropped an anchor either on a group of divers or on a part of the’s not clear) but we were welcome to use one of their mooring balls for a nominal fee of $0.35 per tonne.  For us, that works out to $6.12 – a one time fee regardless of the number of nights we choose to stay.  And we are welcome to use the resort, visit the bars and restaurants, and use their wi-fi.

It is beautiful.  White sand beaches, clear turquoise water that is so warm.  Palm trees line the beach, and the birds sing and call to each other all day.  The dive centre seems to be pretty active, and their boats seem to go out every day.  Maybe I’ll join one while I’m here.  It’s been a long time, but I’m pretty sure I haven’t forgotten how.

And to top it all off, we have an unobstructed view of sunset – every night!

Cayo Levisa to Cayo Rapado Grande

June 21
The wind is still blowing, hitting upwards of 35 knots at times.  It is unrelenting, and we have been bobbing about in the waves for days now.  There was a small respite last night around sundown, and we were hopeful that we would have a quiet night, but no such luck.  By 11 pm it was raining and blowing again.  The wind is still howling, but the sun is shining.  It’s just a shame that it’s too rough to launch the dinghy and go ashore for a bit of relief and a change of scenery.

June 22
Cayo Levisa to Cayo Jutias   49.1 miles Total miles: 567.2
Finally, a break in the weather and light winds to make travelling comfortable.  The water was beautifully flat and the sun shone all day.  We wound our way along many miles of this incredible coastline, and through some very narrow passes between mangrove cays.  Thankfully, Cava has been this way before, and we were able to follow her through the tricky bits.  Some of the aids to navigation reminded us of certain areas in Georgian Bay where the locals will mark a shoal or rocks with a stick!

We arrived at our anchorage at 5pm.  Time for a swim before dinner.

June 23
Cayo Jutias to Cayo Rapado Grande   30 miles Total miles:  597.2

The run itself was uneventful, but we ran out of water as we were approaching the anchorage.  In other words, we ran aground crossing a shallow shelf.  And, of course, the tide was on its way out.  So there we sat, hard aground, as the water around us got shallower and shallower.   There was nothing we could do until high tide the next morning.  We put out 2 anchors – at bow and stern – to keep us from being pushed into shallower water on either side of us by wind or current.

Lucky for us, some of the local fishermen came by to sell some of their catch.  We got these 6 lobsters for $10, and you know they were fresh!  P&J also bought a beautiful pink snapper, and invited us for dinner.   It was a long ride in the dinghy from our stranded boat to Cava, and it seemed even longer getting back in the dark, but it was well worth the effort.

Havana to Cayo Levisa

June 15
Marina Hemingway to Bahia Honda
We were up and away fairly early this morning, stopping for fuel on our way out, and the obligatory check out procedures with the Guarda.  There is great interest in our bicycles, and at each stop they confirm that we still have them – both on arrival and departure.  I guess they are a valuable commodity here, and they want to make sure we have not sold them.

The trip from Marina Hemingway to Bahia Honda is a distance of 40 nautical miles, or about 5 hours.  It was a lovely day with clear skies and very little wind, but we did hit a current going the other direction, which affected our speed and therefore our total travel time.  Cava, our travelling buddies, were affected even more than we were, as they are unable to get more from their engines.

The coastline has become very rugged and sharp, with few towns visible now that we are west of Havana.  The ocean was that beautiful deep sapphire that we love so much, and conditions today were close to perfect.  Kokie was even comfortable enough that he actually played for a little while, a first for him when we are under way.

Our anchorage for the night was Bahia Honda, home to a ship recycling facility but also littered with the wrecks of ships that were either too far gone to recycle, or they sank while waiting their turn.  The rusting carcass of an old dry dock marks the entrance to the bay.   Despite all of this, it is actually very pretty, and we settled in for the night after a refreshing swim, a few drinks with Patrick and Jacqueline, and a light dinner.

June 16
Bahia Honda to Cayo Levisa

Cava left about an hour before us this morning, and when we left the bay we found beautiful flat seas with no wind and virtually no current.  What a perfect day!  Blue faded into blue, with no discernible horizon.   On our left, the sharp coastline with an occasional white sand beach.  On our right, infinity.

We caught up with Cava in time to follow them into Cayo Levisa where we plan to stay for the next several days as there is some serious rain in the forecast.  We left the relative safety of travel in several hundred feet of water to cross the reef, sometimes in water as shallow as 6 to 8 feet.  It is so clear that you can see the bottom at about 30 feet, so everything in less than 10 feet seems to be right at the surface.  Michael had to trust the depth and forward scanner, as I wasn’t able to judge any depth from the bow.

We made it through without incident, but had a little difficulty getting our anchors set in the weedy bottom.  We dragged up a ball of weeds and mud and roots bigger than a basketball at one point which I had to pull off the anchor.  Never let it be said that I am afraid to get my hands dirty!

There is a resort on the island, and we are welcome to visit their beach, bars and restaurants while we are here.  But first, we had to check in with the local Guarda.  Patrick picked him up at the resort dock and brought him out for the clearance formalities, first on his own boat, then to ours.  We provide all the copies of all the same documentation at each stop, and answer all the same questions each time.  Each Guarda laboriously fills out his copy of the forms by hand, which Michael signs with great solemnity.

The resort is lovely, with no buildings above tree level.  The palm thatched bungalows and common areas are spread out across the island, linked by wooden boardwalks across green spaces and sand dunes.  The beach is fabulous, and we plan to spend some time there if the weather allows.

The mainland is clearly an ancient reef that now reaches skyward, with strange shapes mixed amongst sharp points.  Impossible to capture with a camera what we can see with our eyes, but we’ll keep trying.

June 17
Had a lazy morning, and met P&J at the resort restaurant for lunch.  The buffet is typically Cuban – fish, pork, soup, limited vegetables, lots of rice and pasta.  Not great, but a beautiful setting on the beach, so worth the $8.00!

We made it back to the boat before the rain started, and got all the windows and hatches closed.  And did it rain!!!   The wind reached 30mph according to Patrick, and waves pounded across the anchorage.  We watched very carefully to make sure our anchor was holding after the trouble we had setting it, and it held us perfectly!

Sunset after the rain was beautiful, as is often the case.  I think I’m becoming addicted to sunsets.

June 18

We woke up to a beautiful full rainbow, but its been raining ever since, and the wind is getting stronger.  We have done some inside jobs, and done a little tidying and reorganizing.   And at some point during those activities,  I suddenly realized that I have not been providing our mileage travelled in this part of the blog as I did when we were traveling down the rivers from Alabama.  So here it is if you’re interested:

Date Start at Punta Gorda, Florida Miles Travelled Total Miles
Apr 11 Fort Myers Beach Mooring Field 56.6         56.6
Apr 12 Smokehouse Bay, Marco Island 42.8         99.4
Apr 13 Shark River Inlet                             68.2         167.6
Apr 14 Boot Key Harbour                          49.2         216.8
May 6 Anchorage south of Boot Key           3.4           220.2
May 7 Marina Gaviota, Cuba                   114.6 334.8
Jun 5 Marina Darsena                                 24.3         359.1
Jun 6 Marina Hemingway                           81.5         440.6
Jun 15 Bahia Honda                                    47.5         488.1
Jun 16 Cayo Levisa                                       29.9 518.0