Lesson Learned: Emma Jo Can Take WAY More than We Can

At anchor, Bahia del Espiritu Santo
Quintana Roo, Mexico

It’s clear that every day contains lessons learned.

On Sunday evening, at 9:00, we weighed anchor from San Miguel in Cozumel, headed just about due south for Bahia del Espiritu Santo some 86 nautical miles down the coast. The first three hours we were in the lee of Cozumel, had light winds, and gentle swell from the south southeast, and we said to ourselves, hey – this won’t be too bad. Had some tunes on the I-pod, homemade oatmeal cookies, a pot of French Roast sitting in the thermos in the sink, and everything secured for sea. The swells, though 4 to 6 feet, were long and slow enough for us to actually enjoy them.

Then we discovered that the boat can take way more than either the autopilot or the crew.

About half an hour south of the tip of Cozumel, we were in the deep blue of the ocean, and the winds steadily increased to between 18 and 25 miles per hour, and the size of the swell began to overwhelm the autopilot. By about 2:45 a.m., with Jan on watch and Ole trying to catch some rest down below, the autopilot screamed that it had had enough, what with trying to maintain 6.5 knots while fighting off a steady east wind, a strong north setting current, swells increasing to 8-10 feet, and an annoying wind chop on top.

When the autopilot started screaming, Jan had had enough, and luckily Ole decided that a screaming autopilot and nervous wife warranted some adjustment. We dropped speed to about 5.5 knots, and Ole began what ended up to be about 6 hours of hand steering in increasingly turbulent conditions. The hard part was that we couldn’t see the big ones approaching, and once in awhile caught some big swells on the port bow that caused some great sliding and rolling. As we watched the miles and the clock gradually ticking down, we took comfort in the fact that we would be entering the reef at Bahia del Espiritu Santo some time around 9:00 in the morning.

So there we were…and this is no shit…looking at the lighthouse on the south end of the entrance to Bahia del Espiritu Santo, the British Admiralty chart of the area (latest datum 1999), the Raymarine chart plotter (new), and Captain Freya Raucher’s Cruising Guide to Belize and Mexico’s Caribbean Coast (1986) … and all three of them said something different about where the entrance to the reef was!

Captain Trevor had told us about “eyeball navigation” which was great in theory. In the heavy chop it was difficult eyeball exactly where the reef began and ended, and where the safe passage lay.

Confronted with three disparate views about where we were supposed to enter the reef without becoming kindling, we had to cruise back and forth for about an hour, perform some calculations on the paper chart, express our separate viewpoints, read the Cruising Guide over and over, and make a decision. A cruiser we had met at el Milagro in Isla Mujeres who had just returned from this area told us that the positions listed in the Cruising Guide were “right on,” so we decided to trust them, even though the chart plotter and the paper chart showed us that her waypoint was smack on the reef.

So, clenching our sphincters firmly, we steered toward a point that the chart plotter and the chart told us were on the reef, but in actuality was the safe opening that Captain Raucher had documented, and Jeff from el Milagro had told us.

Lesson learned: Charts and plotters are called AIDS to navigation.—they are not God’s law. Local knowledge is called local knowledge for a reason. Trust local knowledge — recent local knowledge.

About a mile inside the reef, we sat for a few minutes and realized we had not made a decision about where we were going to anchor. So we cruised south toward the lighthouse (as the sun moved steadily south, creating glare on the water and making the dark shapes hard to read – were they grass? Coral? Shadow from the clouds?). When the depth sounder registered 4.2 feet in an area charted as 10 feet, we turned around and cruised back toward the north side of the bay, hoping for deeper and calmer water.

Finally, about 11:00 a.m., realizing we were not going to find a flat, calm place to anchor in 20-knot winds, we picked a spot between the reef and a beach, in about 9 feet of water – put out 75 feet of chain, cracked open a cold Miller, and went to bed. 14 hours of overnight cruising in less than ideal conditions, plus the need to make a gut decision in unfamiliar waters made for more stress than any of our previous cruises have produced.

Lessons learned:

  1. Any anchorage that lies in enough water with enough chain and doesn’t lie in 8-10 foot swells is a great anchorage when you’re exhausted.
  2. The first cold beer after a night passage like that one is the best beer you’ve ever tasted.
  3. It is good to nap.

After the nap, we treated ourselves to a swim and some naked pina coladas on the aft deck as the sun went down, a simple dinner, and an unheard-of bedtime of 9:00 pm.

Now for a report on the 4-legged crew:

Barclay is amazing. She insisted on staying in the pilothouse with us without complaint throughout the crossing, and when I wouldn’t let her out the salon door for the “outside” water dish, she decided to sneak out the pilothouse doors and drink from it anyway instead of from the “inside” dish in the galley. As she stuck her head out the door, the wind flattened her ears against her head, she hunkered down, and shouldered her way down the side deck before we even registered that she had done it, and was back a few minutes later, taking up her usual cruising position at the base of the fly bridge steps

Maggie has earned many points on this crossing toward her Junior Sea Scout badge. There was only one barfing incident, she thoughtfully aimed it at her own scratching pad, then stayed the night under the aft wicker chair in the salon instead of down below as usual. As soon as the engines were cut, she demanded breakfast, then sacked out on the back deck for a nap, even though the boat was moving at this anchorage more than during any of our past cruises.

Lesson Learned: The cats are fine, and can stubbornly take care of their own needs pretty damn well.

Now comes the interesting part. Tomorrow evening we have to intentionally head out of here and do this again for another 66 miles in order enter Xcalac, our official “exit port” from Mexico, so that we can officially enter Belize in San Pedro on Thursday morning and get tied up in Belize City by Friday.

Lessons Learned:

  1. Do not, if you can help it, commit to a schedule if you are going to do this.
  2. If you must go out in seas beyond your present comfort zone because you have been stupid enough to commit to a schedule, stock up on brown shorts.

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