Chincorro Banks Lighthouse
The Cruising Adventures of Joan & Ben Schuetz aboard
Part 3: The Mexican coastal leg
In Isla Mujeres, December 13, as usual at 6:30 AM, we received the weatherfax wind and seas forecast. Oh, oh, the 72 hour forecast showed a blustery norther heading. Joan and I discussed it for about 30 seconds and decided that with the then settled weather, we had an opportunity to make it to Belize before the front hit. Thus, with brief visits to immigration and the Port Captain, we checked out of Mexico.
Leaving Isla Mujeres at 8:00 AM on Friday the 14th, we had planned a short day cruise and to spend the night anchored on the north end of Cozumel. From there we could leave around 3:00 AM and make a long day of it. However, the sea conditions were so good that the plan was scrapped in favor of an overnighter with the hope of arriving in San Pedro, Belize late the following afternoon. In the past, the Mexican Yucatan coast has been a difficult cruise for us. The distances between safe anchorages is almost too long for day cruising and when you arrive at one of the few anchorages, the sun is low in the western sky making it difficult to see the reefs, breaking water, etc. Add to that the uncertainty of the currents and one can't help but have concerns of being forced to spend the night out in a building sea.
A mile or so off the Mexican shore, the current runs north at about 2 knots. Very close in shore, often less than 1/2 mile out from the reef, there is a coastal counter current running south at 1/2 to 1 knot. The current change is clearly visible with settled weather. So, during daylight hours, when you can see the reef, it makes good sense to run in shore. That would not, however, be a wise thing to do at night. So, as the sun was setting, we headed offshore. Sure enough, our progress slowed to 5 knots. Sometime before midnight, the beam seas built to the point where everyone, including the auto pilot, was unhappy. We began a +/- 20 degree tack that greatly improved our ride, but cut our forward progress to around 4 knots. Even with the auto pilot back in control it was a long night.
It was apparent that we could not make it to San Pedro before dark the next day. The next best alternative was to put into the Mexican archipelago of Chinchorro Banks, 60 miles short of San Pedro. The anchorage on the north end is at Cayo Norte where there is a light tower and small base manned by the Mexican Navy. We arrived there about 11:00 AM and glad for it. Francesca, Joan, Maggie and I were a little abused, but otherwise fine. Francesca was the only cruiser there.
At the anchorage we were welcomed by several dolphin and a call from the Mexican Navy. Within 20 minutes the Navy arrived, boarded Francesca, got the pertinent information and departed. They were very friendly and took no issue with the fact that we had checked out of Mexico at Isla Mujeres. For an hour or so and with gin clear water, we had a great view of the dolphin playing around our boat. After a quick swim and anchor check, it was time for some much needed sleep.
At daybreak we departed for San Pedro running in the lee of the banks for the next 26 miles. The sea and wind were calm. What a great day. The morning weather fax indicated that the anticipated norther was fizzling out. On the NW Caribbean net, we contacted Brenda and Gene on the sailboat "Queen Mary". They had left Isla M. heading south a day later than us and were anchored in Bahia Ascension. "Awab" was also there. Good to know everyone was safe.
On arrival at San Pedro, we again found very few cruisers. At this writing we are one of two. The whole of the tourist industry has been hit hard by September 11. San Pedro's many beachfront bars and restaurants are wanting for customers. Just as I had experienced in Isla Mujeres, the immigration and customs people were more pleasant than usual. I think they were genuinely glad we had come to visit. Check in at San Pedro is simple. One trip to the gov't building near the school gets it done. The check in fee was $17.00 US up from zero two years ago. Customs and immigration are open 9 - 5, 7 days a week.
We first visited San Pedro by air in 1981. Then, it was so sleepy that dogs slept in the middle of the street and the two or three cars on the island drove around them. Since then, the town has doubled in size, yet most of the same businesses, bars and hotels are still here. While I'm certain there is plenty of money to pave the streets, the dirt streets have wisely been retained and the town retains some of it's former sleepy charm. Now, however, the streets are heavily trafficked with cars, trucks and golf carts. One sailboat charter business has 11 cruising catamarans docked. At roughly $250,000 each, I'm sure they are hoping for a speedy economic recovery.
With only the reef for protection, the anchorage at San Pedro is open to the elements. In a real blow, its not the place to be. However, we have been in San Pedro for several days now and the winter weather remains more settled than we have ever experienced in these latitudes. "Queen Mary" and "Awab" should be arriving any time now.
Joan, Ben & Maggie