Sailing the Yucatan Coast: Bring Your Laundry

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Sailing the Yucatan coast was our most challenging sailing thus far.

While it’s not quite long enough to be a “channel” nor narrow enough to be a “strait,” it is a force to be reckoned with. At just over 200 kilometers (120 miles) wide and 2,800 meters (that’s over 9,000 feet deep), the Canal de Yucatan connects the Yucatan Basin of the western Caribbean to the Gulf of Mexico.

Here’s the crazy thing about this body of water. At the surface, along the east coast of the Yucatan Peninsula, the current known as the Yucatan Current, flows north. Along the southern coast of Cuba, a counter current, aptly named the Cuban Countercurrent, flows east. Underneath the north flowing Yucatan current, the flow feeding the Gulf of Mexico, a separate countercurrent flows south drawing water from the Gulf of Mexico. That’s crazy right? Add the Campeche Banks (a large coral mass in the middle of it all) and you have all the makings for one seriously unpredictable body of water.

A little history of the Yucatan Channel: Back in 1973, some scientists discovered that a massive upwelling of water caused constant confused seas in the area. They theorized that something they termed “bottom friction” was a significant factor in these upwellings. Basically, when water flows from a depth of 9000 feet into the coastline shelfs, where depths quickly shallow to 150 to 200 feet, shit gets crazy.

That’s not how they put it, of course. That’s my paraphrasing, if you will. I don’t think “shit gets crazy” is acceptable scientific lingo. None-the-less…

Way, way back, when preparing for this adventure, I had done a lot of research on the north coast of Cuba and the Yucatan coastline. There wasn’t too much to be had on the Western Caribbean, but what I did find was that the water in this area was unpredictable and in a “constant state of confusion.” Think washing machine. I figured, “How bad could it be?” As long as the wind and current weren’t opposed and we picked our weather windows carefully, it shouldn’t be anything we haven’t seen.

Our departure from Isla was fantastic. The wind was blowing 15 knots from the ENE. The sun was shining. We made great time down to Hut Point. We wanted to anchor at Puerto Morelos, but we were informed that anchoring off the beach was no longer permitted due to the fact that they’ve turned the area into a marine preserve.

At around three o’clock that afternoon, we ducked into the break in the reef (that still never gets any less stressful) and dropped the hook in about 8-9 feet of water. The sand at Hut Point is a very thin layer covering a limestone base. We were forewarned, but followed the GPS points that another boater gave us for a decent spot to anchor with supposed good holding.

Once we backed her down and the anchor was set, Melody dove on the anchor and came up with a confused look on her face. “Ummm… the anchor isn’t set.”

“Huh?” I asked, confused because our Mantus has never not set. Ever.

“Yep – she’s not set. She’s just laying there on top of the bottom with about an inch of the tip dug in.”

I dove in to see for myself. Nope – not set! I start the engine back up and attempt to back her down again, hoping the Mantus would find something to grip into. Mel was in the water and watched from below the surface, ready to give me a thumbs up, but instead, nothing. The chain would pull tight, but the anchor would not budge – even lying on top of the limestone like that.

Not very comforting, but with a 10:1 scope laying on the bottom, we “slept” through the night. The beach off our stern provided a nice landing point for Jet.

Late that night, we were awakened by beams of light shining into our salon. We got up and popped into the cockpit and saw that they were coming from the beach off our stern. A couple of people were walking the beach with flashlights. We didn’t think too much of it until I took Jet the next morning for a potty break and I saw a couple of holes along the beach with boot prints nearby.

Our guess was they were poaching turtle eggs. Yes, that sucks. Hopefully they’ll realize, at some point, that the pristine water and abundant wild life is more precious than a short-term financial boost. But that’s not reality. The poverty is reality. Turtle shells and turtle eggs provide an income. It sucks.

The trip south from Hut Point to Puerto Aventuras, our next stop, introduced us to the infamous Yucatan Current. You see, it’s a graceful introduction at first, because on this short run south, one is still a bit tucked in behind the lee of the island of Cozumel and the ENE swell doesn’t fully smash you until the next leg. But, I’ll get to that in a minute.

Puerto Aventuras is an ex-pat resort/marina/development tucked away amongst the beautiful Mayan Rivera. We chose it because there are few other places along the Yucatan coast to stop, and we wanted to do some land travel to see some of the nearby Mayan ruins.

The inlet is a tricky, tricky beast. We called Gerardo, the dockmaster, on the phone and he talked us in and made sure we understood how to line up the range markers. There’s a reef on your port side coming in, and a stone jetty to starboard, and it’s pretty narrow, so the range is necessary, even in good weather.

His directions were spot on. We made it in without a hitch and were soon tied up to the wall and ready to check into the marina. The office manager, Gabriela, also made us feel welcome the minute we arrived. Once we got everything in order with the marina, we set out to explore the resort.

The inlet (looking out). As you can see, it’s very narrow, with rock jetties and a reef just below the surface if you stray too far on either side.

One thing that we noticed immediately was that it was more like being in Florida, or even Disneyworld, than in Mexico. There was a Starbucks, a Subway, a Dolphin Discovery, and a lot of Americans on vacation, speaking English of course. They took US Dollars in all of the restaurants, bars, and shops, and we quickly found out that usually if you paid in US Dollars, you were charged slightly more.

Our first night there, we decided to splurge and ate our first “American” cheeseburger since leaving Florida, and I will admit, it was delicious. However, our stomachs weren’t used to the grease and we quickly regretted it.

On day 3, we decided to rent a car and brave the inland roads to explore the ruins of Coba. We were advised by a few others that Coba was better than Tulum because it had the tallest of the Mayan pyramids, which you could actually climb, and it was far less crowded than Tulum. We decided to visit Coba.

The car rental was just outside of the resort gates and cost us $50 USD per day. The ride to Coba was great, and made it possible for us to stop along the road and eat in the small, family run eateries and explore the shops. It provided us the opportunity to interact with the locals, try our Spanish and see things we might not otherwise see.

Coba was awesome. The site dates somewhere around 600-900 AD, and it was pretty amazing to see such amazing pieces of architecture still standing after so many years. We did a lot of walking – the entire site covers a pretty good-sized area, and explored the many sites, alters, and heiroglyphics.

The pyramid was the highlight of the trip, and we climbed it to the top, where there were several other people taking photos, meditating, doing yoga. Pretty magical all around.

Heiroglyphics One of the Mayan temples at Coba. Just about to climb to the top. Taking in the view from the top.

On the way back, we stopped at a wonderful little local restaurant to sample some of the Mayan flavor. We also stopped at a honey shop to get some fresh honey, which is actually the Mayan’s biggest export in that area. (It was delicious!)

We had only planned on staying in Puerto Aventuras for a few days, but weather came in and they actually closed the inlet to all boats due to 25+ knot SE winds.

We met some wonderful people during our time there and developed some fast friendships. Our new friends took us in, cooked us ribs, and lavished hospitality on us as if we were family. Thank you Nell! Thank you O’Farrell clan! They were kindred spirits, and we had a blast getting to know all of them.

Me and Nell, who was gracious enough to entertain us from her penthouse Mel and Nell. The view from Nell’s condo was pretty spectacular

All told, we were in Puerto Aventuras for 11 days! Sitting for so long takes us out of travel mode and we didn’t really dig that, although Jet loved it when the dolphins at Dolphin Discovery would rush over when they saw him and they’d all have a dockside chat.

It was nice on day 11 when we finally awoke to see the yellow flag indicating the inlet was back open. We were off the dock within 15 minutes!

The trip south from Aventuras is where the Yucatan Channel unleashes itself upon you. Once south of Cozumel, the ENE winds push an already washing machine-like sea state to another level. With the wind at only 15 knots, the seas were over 6 feet. We’d be sailing along with what was supposed to be following seas, only to slam into a bow wave that would break over the entire boat. The next wave would scream up from the beam and roll us over hard to starboard and upon recovering, a special little friend would roll up from behind and slam into our stern, swerving us thirty degrees off track. Surprise! Welcome to the upwelling!

We did day hops to keep Jet from going crazy. Okay… me, too. To keep me and Jet from going crazy. Punta Allen, Bahia Espiritu, and finally the overnight run to San Pedro, Belize.

Punta Allen was, dare I say, the low point. We dropped anchor on the western side of the peninsula and decided to make the trek around to the east side town dock. We were so eager to check out this tiny little fishing village that we’d read so much about. After Puerto Aventuras, we needed a dose of “local” life.

We hopped in the dinghy with Jet, eager to explore (and give him a proper walk and potty break) and as soon as we rounded the corner, the east winds hit us, splashing us with salty chop. Sargasso grass started to clog the intake of our outboard, so every 15 seconds, I had to stop the dinghy to unclog it, which left us soaking wet and asking why we were doing this.

But that’s not the worst part. I guess the constant chop was just too much for Jet to take. Melody noticed that he was pacing and turning circles in the dinghy, just like he does when he’s ready to poop on the grass. She screamed, “I think he’s gonna go!” Before we knew it, he was shitting, and shitting, and shitting… all in the dinghy. Poor guy couldn’t help it. We had nothing to scoop it out with, so yes, folks…we used our hands. Welcome to “the glamorous life.”

By this point, we were all miserable. I thought about turning us around, but Melody was like, “Oh no, we’ve come this far, we should keep going.” So keep going, we did…the rest of the 5-mile dinghy ride.

I took off my shirt and Melody used it to wipe out the remaining mess in the dinghy while I continued to go 50 yards, then unclog the intake…rinse and repeat. Luckily I had another shirt in my backpack to throw on.

We beached the dinghy atop the huge mound of sargasso and tried not to think about how we were going to get out of there and back to the boat in the wind and waves.

The rest of the day was not the best. We were both in foul moods at that point, but we tried to enjoy Punta Allen as best as we could. It is a pretty awesome little village, picturesque in its beauty and in its quaintness.

Just after our dinghy ride…not our best day. “Downtown” Punta Allen.

The next day, we were off, headed for Bahia Espiritu.

When leaving the bays at Punta Allen and Espiritu, you punch due east, and even early in the morning before the afternoon winds pipe up, it’s a nasty slog out to safe water. Once past the reefs, you turn south and experience all that washing machine love all over again.

Bahia Espiritu was nice, albeit a somewhat stressful ride in through a few parts due to shallows. We draw 5 feet and were seeing less than that in one spot on our depth gauge, but we think the soft sand and wave action helped push us through, and we never ran aground.

We anchored in a little cove off of Isla Chal, and were able to anchor just about 150 feet off the beach! We didn’t even have to launch the outboard – we just rowed across. We were all in better spirits, and cracked open a couple of beers and stripped off our clothes because we had this awesome little island all to ourselves. Jet got to run around, and we looked for shells, relaxed, and swam until the sea nettles started getting us.

We had this little island all to ourselves. A carefree day.

The next morning, we were finally off to San Pedro, Belize. We loved Mexico, but were getting excited to get to Belize.

The apex of the sailing misery came on the overnight run to San Pedro. The winds were 15, gusting to 20 so I tucked in the first reef for the overnight hours. I wanted to keep the boat going fast enough to diminish the effects of the sea state as much as possible. It didn’t matter. The results were the same. Lift with a swell. Slam into the back of a steep dropping wave. Pitch. Seas abeam. Roll… way… over. Drop into the trough. Crashing waves astern.

Twenty. Four. Hours. Of. This.

When we arrived to San Pedro (Ambergris Caye), we were exhausted. Fortunately, the passage through the reef was easy. Active Captain notes and Freya’s bearings were spot on. We dropped anchor in the crowded harbor amid the discourteous tour boats, fishing charters and water taxis, and promptly fell asleep.

I think I now understand why most people elect to take the Bahamian route to Belize and the Rio versus the Mexican route. When we were in Cuba, I thought the north coast was some of the more challenging sailing I’ve ever done. That sailing pales in comparison to sailing south via the Yucatan Channel. No matter what causes that “upwelling” they discovered back in 1973, it deserves… check that. It commands respect.

The Yucatan coast is beautiful. The people are incredible. I long to go back. I hear from those who’ve done it that the sail north is better. I’ll need a few months to let my amnesia kick in for that thought to sink in.