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October 27 - November 13, 2009

Running from Hurricane Ida: Guatemala to Mexico

As we sat in the Rio Dulce during October, we contemplated the possibility of being back in Texas for the holidays and, with any luck, gainfully employed in the new year. Although the proper time to head north to Texas from the Caribbean is in late springtime, there is sometimes an opportunity in the fall after hurricanes and before cold fronts start marching across the Gulf of Mexico every few days. If we hurried up to Isla Mujeres, Mexico (near Cancun) in November, we might catch such a weather window. The risk with this option was that November is the prime time for hurricanes to form in the western Caribbean (in the summer months, hurricanes generally form off of Africa). We'd be taking a risk without any guarantee that a weather window would actually materialize. Or we could just forget about it and enjoy another six months in the northwest Caribbean.

We decided to take our chances and let the weather decide if we went home this year or next. On October 27th, we paid our bill at Texan Bay marina, started the engine, and threw off all but the last two dock lines. Just as we were about to pull out, I turned on the autopilot. Nothing. Nick ran below and jiggled some wires. The unit powered on but flashed "Data Fail." After a few more minutes of checking connections, we turned off the engine in the defeat. Nick spent the next few hours, cleaning and checking connections. It turned out that the connection on the back of the head unit was a bit flaky and needed to be plugged in just so to work. We were relieved to get it working since having our autopilot repaired would have delayed our departure indefinitely.

On October 28th, we prepared again for departure, and this time all systems were a go. We anchored off the town of Livingston and went ashore to check out with the agent, Raul. Also waiting to check out were Doug and Rayene on S/V Kristiana. Doug is the weather guy for the northwest Caribbean SSB net, so we felt good about our decision to leave the river with hurricane season not officially over.

With our paperwork in order, we crossed the shallow sandbar three and half hours before high tide and were feeling pretty optimistic. Our intention was to sail overnight to Lighthouse Reef in Belize and spend a few days while some squally weather passed. Nick went below to check the engine room, as he does periodically when we're motoring. Everything looked fine, but he smelled burning oil. Looking around on the backside of the engine, he discovered oil pouring out of the oil pan.

We stopped the engine, raised the headsail, and turned back toward Livingston. As we slowly drifted downwind toward the sea buoy, Nick gave the situation a closer look. A tube extending from the side of our oil pan had fallen off leaving a hole from which the oil sloshed out. Fortunately, we had been motoring and not heeling over under sail, or we might have lost all the oil in the engine. The tube, which has a cap, serves absolutely no purpose on our engine, other than, it would appear, to fall off and potentially ruin the engine. The unthreaded tube had been secured with some kind of sealant that had failed. Nick stuck the tube back in the hole and secured it temporarily with tape. We restarted the engine and it held. Just as we reached the sea buoy, we turned around and motored to the anchorage at Tres Puntas, six miles across the bay. Once anchored, Nick used a high-temperature sealant to affix the tube. Another setback, another successful repair. We were starting to wonder if Someone was trying to tell us we shouldn't leave the river yet.

With a forecast for southeast wind, we pulled out of Tres Puntas around midday on the 29th. Heading due east with main, mizzen, and jib, we spent all afternoon tacking back and forth against a 15-20 knot northeast wind. Just before sunset, we finally reached the east side of Belize's barrier reef where we could turn northeast toward Lighthouse Reef. With just a reefed main, we motored comfortably all night on our course, but we only made about 3 knots against the wind and waves. There was quite a bit of traffic in the area, and we had to call one passenger ship that was turning onto our course. He thoughtfully agreed to alter course around us and gave us a weather report: 20-plus knots and 3-4 foot seas.

By sunrise, the wind had clocked more to the east, so we pulled out the jib and turned off the engine for a brisk sail to Lighthouse Reef. By lunchtime, we were anchored in a familiar spot behind Long Cay. After five months of muddy river water, we couldn't wait to jump into the clear water. Nick picked up two conch while diving the anchor. Yum, conch fritters! It felt great to be anchored out in one of our favorite places, finally cruising again. Being the only boat there, we had one of the best places in the Caribbean all to ourselves. Hey-hey, with all this privacy I wouldn't need to do any laundry for awhile!

The next day, the sun was still shining so we went snorkeling. I felt like I'd been reunited with old friends. Among the crowd were black drums, parrotfish, shy soldierfish, and my favorite Queen Triggerfish. Meanwhile, Nick speared a couple of large crabs. Did someone order crab cakes for dinner? The squally weather finally arrived with thunderstorms, as forecast, but we were content and well-anchored.

On Monday, November 2nd, the weather had cleared and Chris Parker said we would have light northeast wind before squally weather arrived on Wednesday night and set in for the weekend. We expected to motorsail against the wind to Isla Mujeres in order to be ready for a potential window to Texas the following week. We weighed anchored at midday to cross the coral bar in good light and tied up to a mooring ball for one last snorkel on the beautiful reef. Knowing that this might be the last snorkel of our cruise made us savor every moment.

At sunset, we dropped the mooring ball and set sail northbound. A full moon rose and stayed with us until dawn, illuminating the gently rolling sea. We were close-hauled and sailing in the silent night. Quite often passages are grueling, but on this night everything was perfect. It was the kind of night under sail that landlocked sailors dream about, the kind of night that makes some of us give up the safety of land to feel the quiet solitude and grace of sailing offshore. There are so few moments in life that are pure enough to touch your soul, and I've experienced them most often while sailing. Listening to the Ipod during my watch, the words of our wedding song captured my feelings:

"These are the moments I know heaven must exist. These are the moments I know all I need is this. Every prayer has been answered and every dream I have has come true. These are the moments I thank God that I'm alive. These are the moments I'll remember all my life. I've got all I've waited for and I could not ask for more."

By Tuesday morning, we had four sails flying but were motoring to pinch high on the wind, which had backed to the north. By nightfall, south of Cozumel, we were motoring with nothing but a double-reefed main and watching thunderstorms pop up around us. The squalls previously forecast had arrived a day early. We sailed through the first squall, and that convinced us to dodge the rest of them even though it cost us time steering off course. What was that song I was singing the night before? I could definitely ask for more on this night. For starters, how about no squalls and a favorable wind direction.

The bad news came on Chris Parker's Wednesday morning SSB report. A low pressure system, which had been threatening to develop in the southwest Caribbean for the past month, had finally turned tropical. He expected it to be a tropical depression before the day was over and soon after Tropical Storm Ida. We just shook our heads at our bad judgment. We should have stayed in the river a little longer. Now we couldn't turn back.

By now Cozumel was just a solid blur of orange squalls on our radar. There was no going around them anymore, and we were making poor time tacking up the channel against the wind and waves. Our ETA into Isla Mujeres was now after sunset, and we weren't sure we could safely enter the harbor in the dark. It seemed we would never get past that damn island. On the VHF, we heard the port captain close the port and warn mariners of bad squalls.

As we approached the shoal area on the north end of Cozumel, where the waves tend to stack up, the worst squall of our entire cruise descended on us. The wind shrieked at 40-plus knots, the seas built over 10 feet, and lightning struck the water all around us. As we hurried to pull in our staysail, the wind thrashed the flogging canvas against the rigging, shredding the UV cover. We were in the most vulnerable place of the entire passage, on a shoal in a narrow gap between the island and the mainland. Luckily, we found a good angle to the seas and Caribbean Soul flew along at 8-9 knots in a comfortable motion, with only an occasional wave smothering the bow.

Once clear of Cozumel, we flew along to Isla Mujeres on a more favorable course. Waiting for our arrival at the El Milagro Marina were Gene and Brenda on Queen Mary and David on Expectations. With plenty of hands on the dock and two dinghies to push the boat, we backed into a slip and tied up, finally safe and secure. We then learned that Tropical Storm Ida was on a northbound track straight for Isla Mujeres.

During the next two days, our focus was storm preparation. We listened attentively as old salts with names like "Storm" and "Chick" described how they survived Category 5 Hurricane Wilma in 2005 tied up in the mangroves in Isla Mujeres' lagoon. The owner of El Milagro said his docks wouldn't be strong enough to hold our heavy boats, so we would all have to move. On Saturday, we relocated to the Varadero de Oscar Marina in the lagoon where we shared a slip with Queen Mary. Our two sailboats were sandwiched between a large yellow Cancun party boat and a big fishing vessel. Oscar worked hard to accommodate us and his other guests, and he assured us his docks would withstand the storm. The location was well-protected and his docks new and sturdy.

On Sunday morning, after a squally night of strong thunderstorms, we awoke to learn that Ida had ramped up to 90 mph and turned more northwest, toward us. A few hours later, Ida was up to 100 mph, a Category 2 hurricane. By noon, the storm was expected to pass just east of us, if not directly over the island. We did not want to be on Caribbean Soul if the party boat next to us broke free and started crushing its neighbors. We quickly packed up our laptops, camera equipment, important papers, and Dakota and took refuge in Oscar's office. Then we watched the clock and waited for the maelstrom to begin. And we waited. By noon, radar showed the storm had passed well east of us. Ida's hurricane force winds only extended 15 miles from the center, so we were spared by the margin of a few miles. In fact, the weather on Sunday was the mildest we'd had since our arrival. We were grateful for the prayers and positive thoughts of friends and family on our behalf. We had been spared.

With Ida on her way north to ultimately create a "historic coastal storm" off North Carolina, we set about to undo our storm preparations. Queen Mary and Expectations left for Florida, and we were alone to contemplate our own weather window to Texas. We'd taken a big gamble coming to Mexico and narrowly missed damaging or losing our boat in a hurricane. Would our risk be rewarded? Would we be spending Christmas with family in Texas or with friends in the Caribbean?

 

At Long Cay in the Lighthouse Reef Atoll, we enjoyed several days back in clear water. Nick speared these two crabs while snorkeling, and they made some tasty crab cakes.

"Yippee!!" Deanna plunges into the clear water at Lighthouse Reef.

Caribbean Soul (sailboat on left) and Queen Mary are tied up between two much larger vessels.

Nick prepares for Hurricane Ida.

Dakota prepares for Hurricane Ida.

Charter catamarans tied into the mangroves awaiting Ida.

Power and sailboats of all sizes came from Cozumel and Cancun to seek refuge in the lagoon at Isla Mujeres.

Isla Mujeres is a small island located off of Cancun, Mexico

 

The Laguna Makax is a protected mangrove lagoon inside the island. When storms threaten, boats from around the
Yucatan peninsula come here for shelter.

   
   
   
   
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