I Almost Forgot…

Things took such an unexpected turn earlier this month that I completely forgot to share some good news. Southwinds Magazine published one of our blog posts. You can find it on the last page of their July issue. Here’s a link if you’re interested:

While I’m not particularly motivated to try and turn writing into a paying gig (sounds too much like work, and I’m retired, afterall), earning a few dollars through magazine articles helps build our credibility as journalists. That will be important when we submit our paperwork to return to Cuba in the hopefully not-to-distant future!

Nothing to share yet about our immediate plans. As we’ve mentioned, we’ve returned home to deal with an unexpected family health crisis. It’s too soon to tell, but as of today, well, let’s just say we have our hands full and it’s not clear when the journey will resume. As soon as we figure it out, we promise you’ll be among the first to know…

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The Long Trip Home

After twelve days of pressing hard, we finally sailed into Pensacola Bay and tied up to the transient pier at Pensacola Naval Air Station. With the exception of a day that we spent in Bradenton waiting for a mechanic to evaluate our ailing transmission, it has been a week and a half of rising before dawn and getting underway early to make the most progress before getting shut down by afternoon thunderstorms.

They say God never gives you more than you can handle. Since the day we received the call telling us we were urgently needed back in Pensacola, it seems that we’ve been constantly tested. Not only have we had the challenges of extremely unpleasant weather, but it also felt like Eagle Too literally started falling apart on us once we pointed the bow north. It’s almost as if she was telling us that she didn’t like this new plan, didn’t like it one little bit.

First, the pressure switch on our potable water pump failed. That meant that while we had plenty of drinking water in our tank, we basically had no way to access it. Fortunately, this was just the sort of failure that we knew could be extremely inconvenient, so we had a spare pump onboard, and it was a pretty easy fix to swap out the pumps.

Next, about two days into the trip, I noticed a new sound coming from the engine. When you have a diesel sitting in the middle of your living room, you get pretty used to its presence and moods—its sounds, smells, the way it feels as it operates. One morning after getting underway, I thought I detected a subtle growl emerging from the steady thrumming pulse of the running engine. The next day, i was pretty sure there was definitely something there. One day later, there wasn’t any doubt. Something was definitely different. And my long history with marine machinery tells me that a new sound that gets worse over time probably isn’t a good thing, and it’s most likely not going to get better on its own.

At that time we were approaching Bradenton and Snead Island Boatworks, where our friends Deb and TJ on S/V Kintala are spending the summer earning money to restock their cruising kitty. A quick call revealed that the slip next to them was empty, and the next day we slid alongside them and stepped ashore for the first time in five days. The following day being Monday, TJ confirmed that their best engine guy should be able to come give our diesel a quick listen in the early AM, and if he felt the noise was not a harbinger of imminent failure, we could be on our way by mid-morning.

Since leaving Marathon, we’d spent most of our time motoring, running the engine at about 3000 rpm for eight to ten hours at a stretch. I felt it was time to do a thorough engine inspection. One of the things I took a peek at was our transmission fluid. Now our transmission doesn’t have a dipstick. It’s basically a sealed unit. You have to use a crescent wrench to remove a bolt to check the fluid level. I’d just changed the fluid (it uses automatic transmission fluid) about 60 engine hours previously, so I wasn’t expecting to find anything out of the ordinary. So it was quite a gut-check when I pulled the plug and saw that the fluid was dark brown and watery rather than bright pink, and smelled absolutely terrible. It looked like our clutches were burning up.

When the mechanic showed up the next day, he confirmed the diagnosis. After examining the fluid and listening to the strange sound I detected, his prognosis was that we could probably press on for Pensacola, but he advised not running the engine above 1800 rpm. That meant that rather than clipping along at about 7.5 knots and knocking out 60 or 70 miles a day, we were only going to be able to manage a little over 5 knots, while worrying about if or when the transmission would eat itself and expire. Just a touch more anxiety to add spice to the trip.

So we pressed on, more slowly. While crossing the Gulf, the fan belt frayed apart. I try to check on the engine every few hours while underway, and had already seen the telltale signs of a belt on its last legs, so when the loud slapping noise suddenly started, I was pretty sure what had happened. We keep spares onboard, so we only had to drift for about 25 minutes while I replaced the belt. Why were we drifting, rather than sailing? Because there was absolutely no wind. None. The Gulf was like glass. Which wasn’t a bad thing, because it made for a very smooth crossing, at least until the belt disintegrated. And yes, I did check the belt before heading out to cross the Gulf. It looked fine.

And then we found ourselves anchored in St. Joseph Bay, with just one overnight passage between us and home. A thunderstorm was bearing down on us, and we were swinging much too close to shore for comfort. Time to raise the anchor and move a bit farther away from the beach. But when I stood on the “up” switch to begin the process, nothing happened. Not a click, not a whir, nothing. The windlass had departed the premises. And so I was left strong-backing 175 feet of chain and a 55 lb anchor up onto the bow while the winds built over 20 knots.  Yes, it was turning out to be another fun day on the water.

But we’re here. We made it. And we consider ourselves extremely fortunate. We spent 12 days traveling through the wrong area at the wrong time of year, but the worst of the weather always seemed to be a day ahead or a day behind us. As close as some of the storms came, we never actually received more that a few sprinkles while underway (although it did pour buckets several times once we were anchored or tied up), and none of the mechanical problems kept us from pressing on.

Now we’re just going to rest for a few days before diving into the issue that brought us back to Pensacola at this most inconvenient and unintended time.BackHome

You Don’t Need To Be Crazy, But It Helps

July is no time to cruise the southwest coast of Florida. You’d have to be a little crazy (or have a really serious motivation, like, say, a significant family health issue that just can’t wait…) to cause you to sail these waters at this time of year. Why? Thunderstorms. Massive, angry thunderstorms that blow up from nowhere and make traveling on the water extremely treacherous. Since leaving Marathon in the Florida Keys a week ago, we’ve had to deal with these rapidly moving monsters every single day.Storms1 Storms2 Storms3If we get underway a little after sunrise, we can usually make five or six hours of progress before things start falling apart. Sometimes the day starts with a little tease that seems to say, “Today will be a better day.”

Storms5But shortly after noon, the skies once again grow angry and threatening, and distant peals of thunder and flashes of lightening start us looking for a safe place to tuck in for the rest of the day.
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Sometimes we can find a hole to thread through between a pair of storms.Storms4

We constantly watch our radar, monitoring the rain clouds as they form around us, watching their strength and direction.

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It has been a very stressful week. We’re pushing ourselves and Eagle Too extremely hard, and we’re all starting to feel the strain. But we’ve made good progress. We concluded our journey northward up this storm harassed coast today, pulling into a slip at Clearwater Beach Marina less than an hour before the skies opened up. Tomorrow, we strike out across the Gulf, with Apalachicola as our destination. It’s a passage of about 150 miles more or less. We’re planning to head out Clearwater pass as the sun rises, and we should be arriving at Government Cut off Apalachicola by mid-afternoon on the following day. Wish us luck!

A Journey Interrupted

I’ve said before that if you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans. Well, the Big Guy must have been in need of a good chuckle this week. We’ve been busy pouring over cruising guides and studying charts, planning a trip up Florida’s east coast. We were intending to leave Marathon tomorrow, headed toward Miami. But then the phone rang. We found out that a family health issue back in Pensacola requires our urgent attention. So we’re still leaving tomorrow. But rather than heading east, we’re retracing our route back to Pensacola. It should take us 10 or 12 days.

We’re obviously disappointed. It wasn’t what we’d planned. But family comes first. So it’s back to Pensacola we go, with no reservations. With some luck, maybe we’ll be able to resume our adventure this fall. Or maybe we can head out again next spring. We’ll just have to see.

We’ve taken several cruises in the past, and I told Rhonda that while stowing gear on deck this afternoon and getting Eagle Too ready to put to sea, I felt exactly like I’ve felt on the last night of a cruise. That’s when you put your suitcases out in the hallway for the stewards to collect. You’re still on vacation, but the end is in sight. We’re really hoping this won’t be the conclusion of our amazing journey. We have so much more we want to see and do. But sometimes life throws you a curve, and you have no real choice but to just adapt and deal with it. Stay tuned…Keep Calm

Chilling In Marathon

Ah, the life of a cruiser. If you count our time in the Dry Tortugas, we’ve been in the Florida Keys for three weeks now. When are we leaving? We don’t know. We haven’t yet decided. And that’s just fine with us, since there is no place else that we absolutely need to be right now. We live on perpetual vacation, after all!

For most of the last two weeks, we’ve been hanging out in Marathon, which is just about right in the middle of the Keys, halfway between Key West and Miami. Marathon’s Boot Key Harbor offers what is probably the best protected location in the Keys, and contains over 200 mooring balls for visiting boats. Marathon and the Boot Key Harbor mooring field are on the short list of things all cruisers should partake of at least once. It’s one of the common cultural experiences that defines our cruising tribe and unites us through bonds of community. It’s a boating Mecca that offers everything a sailor (or even that lesser order of mariner, a power-boater) requires to sustain themselves and maintain their vessels.Marathon7 Marathon6 Marathon5 Marathon4

Instead of picking up a mooring, of which there are currently plenty available (it’s the off-season—in winter there’s a waiting list), we decided to go to a marina instead. Why? Because it’s currently hot. Very hot. Damn hot. I’m not talking about the kind of hot that you can deal with by pouring water over your head to cool off. I’m talking the kind of hot that leaves you feeling lightheaded and dizzy after merely taking the trash ashore. The type of hot where people on moorings wait for midnight to come so that temperatures will moderate enough to allow for comfortable sleep. No, we knew we wanted to run the air conditioner. And that meant access to shore power, which meant we needed to be in a marina. So we’re tied up to a seawall at Sombrero Resort and Marina, where we have power, water, and even cable TV for a pretty reasonable weekly rate (by Florida Keys standards, anyway).Marathon2 Marathon3 Marathon1

There’s a swimming pool with a Tiki bar for our use, a pretty decent laundry room, and an address where we can receive mail and packages.Marathon12

So as you can imagine, it’s been a bit difficult to muster the determination to leave and head north. I mean, we’re in the Keys, after all, a place that many consider paradise and spend a great deal of money to visit.

For the first time since leaving St. Petersburg, we’ve been able to take our bikes ashore. We’ve found that everything we need, from West Marine and a Yanmar parts dealer (repair parts for the boat) to grocery stores and numerous bars and restaurants (therapy for the soul) are all within a 15 minute ride. I will say that our Back Bay folding bicycles did not benefit from the long period of dormancy. Remaining on deck, zipped in their storage bags while we experienced Cuba and Mexico, the steel parts of our bikes did what you’d expect them do in the presence of salt water and tropical heat—they started rusting. The worst was the chain on Rhonda’s bike, which had frozen into a solid clump of oxide. Fortunately nothing was past the point of no return, and a few hours of cleaning, polishing, oiling and flexing returned everything to working condition.

It’s a mile and a half from where our boat is tied up to Sombrero Beach, which is considered one of the best beaches in the Keys. It’s an easy 15 minute ride on a nice bike path, so we naturally rode over to take in the July 4th festivities.Marathon8 Marathon9 Marathon10 Marathon11

So where to next? Well, we’re still waiting for a new float switch for our shower sump that we’ve ordered from  West Marine. Once it arrives, we’ll probably start looking northward. We believe we can be in Biscayne Bay in two or three days, where we’ll spend a night or two at anchor enjoying a view of the Miami skyline. From there, we think we’ll push farther north, maybe as far as Jacksonville. We have a few months of hurricane season to wait out before we’ll feel safe jumping over to the Bahamas, and we’ve been wanting to see more of Florida’s east coast.

Or maybe we’ll just hang around here for a while longer… :-)

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Hidalgo Nights

Rhonda and I are still too new at this cruising lifestyle to be able to articulate exactly what we’re hoping to get out of it. We started with no particular destination in mind, just vague notions of an endless vacation in exotic locations with nice beaches, warm tropical breezes, and comfortable, affordable tiki bars. But we’ve come far enough in our travels to start forming opinions about places we enjoy. I guess it’s a case of “hard to define, but we’ll know it when we see it.” And we definitely felt very comfortable on the island of Isla Mujeres. It seemed to offer a near perfect mix of the exotic, the interesting, and the affordable that made it a great place to linger for a month.

One of our favorite places on the island was Hidalgo Street. Closed to traffic, the street is an eight to ten block long promenade lined with shops, bars and restaurants.  It would take weeks to work through all the possible drinking and dining opportunities on this one street.Hidalgo1 Hidalgo2 Hidalgo3 Hidalgo4

I’d originally wanted to take the boat down to Cozumel for a few days. It’s a place we’re very familiar with, as we’ve visited it numerous times on Carnival cruises. I thought it would be fun to spend a bit more time there than a cruise allows. But after experiencing Isla Mujeres and the street life that is Hidalgo, I lost interest. This was so much better. The prices were lower, the atmosphere was less hectic, and we didn’t have to share the streets with thousands of cruise ship passengers. There wasn’t a Diamonds International, Del Sol or shop hawking Tanzanite to be seen. No Carlos and Charlies or Senõr Frogs full of crazy drunks. Just blocks and blocks of authentic Mexican island life.

Saturday, June 11th was Rhonda’s birthday, and she was craving Pescado Frito, or Mexican fried fish. After considering many of the options, we eventually found ourselves at Don Chepos on Hidalgo Street.

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After a bowl of sopa de lima (which we’ve really grown to love), a great meal of fresh fish, and some four dollar (75 peso) margaritas, we then started ambling back towards our marina. But we hadn’t made it very far when the beautiful sounds of jazz guitar drew us into Sardinian Smile. Here’s a taste of evenings on Hidalgo Street.

And to put a perfect finish on the evening, while we sat sipping our Jim Beam con hielos, the guitarist starting playing this. Those who know us well understand this song’s significance for us.

As often happened during our time on Isla Mujeres, we set out with no specific plans, and the island delighted us with an enjoyable and truly memorable evening. We look forward to the time when we can return once again to this Caribbean jewel.

A Day At Fort Jefferson

We dropped anchor in the Garden Key anchorage off Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas after spending 48 hours crossing 300 miles of open ocean from Isla Mujeres, Mexico. A welcoming committee greeted us.DT16

The Dry Tortugas are a wildlife sanctuary, and you could tell from their behavior that it never occurred to these guys that maybe we weren’t to be trusted. Even if you tried to shoo them away, they’d just squawk and flap a bit and then settle right back down.

To say that we were weary doesn’t begin to reflect how bone-tired we felt. But a quick check of the weather upon arrival showed that if we didn’t continue moving eastward soon, we might end up being pinned in the Tortugas for three or four days waiting out 20-25 knot east winds. So to reach our intended destination of Boca Chica Key and the marina at Key West Naval Air Station, we needed to exploit the predicted remaining day of settled weather and press on the following morning. That meant we only had 24 hours at Garden Key. And I really, really wanted to see the fort. I’m a bit of a history buff after all, and who knew when or if we may ever pass this way again. So in a supreme act of mind over matter, we pushed through the sleep deprivation fog and launched the dinghy to go ashore.

So let me stop you before you say anything. No, we were not supposed to go ashore. We hadn’t yet cleared back into the country. For that, we had to visit the Customs and Border Protection office in Key West, and that was still 70 miles and a full day’s sail east. But our American flag was flying and our “Q” flag wasn’t, so I calculated that the odds that anyone would even notice that we had just arrived from Mexico was extremely remote. Besides, a large high-speed catamaran and several seaplanes from Key West had just disgorged a hoard of day-trippers onto the island. So who’s going to notice two more tourists, we thought.DT15

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Yes, he did actually land that close to us!

I’m glad we made the effort. The fort was quite impressive. It should be, as it’s the largest masonry structure in the Western hemisphere. It’s so big that they had to quit building it before it was finished, because it was making the island sink. You can read more about it here:

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It was very hot, and very dry. it is the Dry Tortugas, after all. It got the name because there isn’t any water there. None. Not a drop, other than seawater. And yet, during the fort’s construction, several thousand people made Garden Key home. So where did their water come from? We found out that the entire fort was actually designed to capture and store rainwater in huge underground cisterns. Unfortunately, the immense weight of the fort, which caused it to sink into the soft sand of the island, cracked the masonry foundations and allowed seawater to contaminate the cisterns.  One still functions, however, located in the fort’s parade grounds, and it is this cistern that still provides drinking water today for the National Park Service staff that reside there. Being a Ranger at this park is not a job that you commute to, at least not on a daily basis. They work a multi-day shift, living on the island until relieved by another crew. As for we visitors, well, everything we need to eat and drink, we have to bring with us. There are no concession stands dispensing cheeseburgers and Cokes and water coolers providing ice cold water to drink.

And isn’t Garden Key an amusing name for such a remote and desolate place? Obviously there was a 19th century publicist involved. I can just see the recruiting posters luring brick masons to sign on for a tour of duty during construction. “Come live and work on Garden Key, the jewel of the southern Gulf!”

Anyway, did I mention it was hot and dry? We’re talking, take a deep swig of water and pour some on your head and neck every few minutes, hot and dry. As we approached the fort, we saw a sign that said “No food or drink allowed in Fort Jefferson.”

We were dumbfounded. “They can’t be serious,” we said to each other, each of us holding a big half frozen water bottle. But do you think that two tired, groggy sailors who had just violated a host of border control laws by dinghying ashore before formally clearing in would be detered by a silly sign? We were not. We boldly marched into the fort, our life-sustaining H2O discreetly secreted in Rhonda’s backpack. Yes, we be pirates, arrgh. :-)DT11DT1DT2DT3
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Here’s a bit more about how the fort was designed to capture and store rain water.DT14

Beat down and spent from the heat and the fatigue of the passage, we returned to the boat just in time to wave goodbye to the Key West daytrippers. It was pretty novel watching this guy roar past our bow.DT13

But before we finally called it a day, Rhonda spotted several enormous Goliath Grouper hanging out below our boat, and we just had to take a quick dip to get to know them. Unfortunately, they weren’t very friendly, and when they saw us coming, they disappeared into the murk. Very disappointing, these Florida waters. Them seemed so clear from the surface. But once the grouper sank about 25 feet, they just vanished. In Mexico, we could have easily seen them in much deeper depths. The water was so much clearer there.

Have A Plan, But Be Prepared To Change It

Since arriving in Mexico in mid-May, Rhonda and I had contemplated our next step. The original plan was to head south for hurricane season, tucking into the Rio Dulce in Guatemala for July thru October to wait out the peak of the season. But over a period of several weeks, we had the opportunity to talk with cruisers who had spent time there, and the reviews were decidedly mixed. As we spoke with people, we felt that a pattern began to emerge. The ones who sang Guatemala’s praises seemed to be those who had sailed their boat down for hurricane season, hauled it out and put it on the hard, and then flew back to the States for three or four months. Those who actually stayed on their boats had a less flattering view. “Well, you’re in the middle of the jungle, so it’s hotter than hell,” they’d say. “And Fronteras (the nearby town) is pretty rough, and doesn’t offer much.” We heard tales of having to spend six hours each way on a bus to reach Guatemala City to get to a sizable grocery store or an airport.

Looking around at this little island of Isla Mujeres, with its hundreds of bars and restaurants, grocery stores and shopping all within a manageable walk or short dinghy ride, and Cancun just a 30 minute ferry ride away, we started to ask ourselves why we’d want to leave here to go there and basically become boat hostages for four months. Yes, we have about a thousand hours of movies and TV shows on our entertainment system hard drive, and I have about 30 books on my Kindle waiting to be read, but the thought of just sitting in the salon reading and watching TV for four months lacked appeal. There was only one good reason to go south—hurricane avoidance. We began to consider just staying on Isla Mujeres for the season. We could if we wished to, as our insurance doesn’t require us to leave the Caribbean during storm season.

But that option presented its own problems. There was a protected lagoon on the south side of the island that is a recognized hurricane hole, and we were originally told that if a storm approached, everyone heads into the lagoon to ride it out. But then some folks with more time on the island said, “Yes, but all the charter and fishing boats from Cancun also come piling into the lagoon and try to tie up to the mangroves with clothesline and undersized anchors, and you have to ride out the storm on your boat so you can fend off all the dragging boats bouncing around.

That was the point at which the teeter tottered. Maybe we should just go back to the Keys, we started asking ourselves. We’re from Florida, we’re used to living with the threat of hurricanes, and there are a lot more options for running or hiding from a storm there. Instead of just sitting on the boat watching TV, we could spend the summer exploring the Keys and Florida’s east coast, maybe even jump over to the Bahamas.

So a new plan was born. A plan that was finally settled upon when our neighbors Addison and Pat on S/V Threepenny Opera informed us that they were jumping over to the Dry Tortugas at the next good weather window. We’d met them a month previously in Marina Hemingway, Cuba, and finding out that we were all heading in the same general direction, had traveled together ever since.A&P

Sailing from Isla Mujeres to the Dry Tortugas is a trip of over 300 nautical miles (that’s almost 350 statute, or landlubber, miles). That was over twice the distance we’d previously covered in a single jump, and would require spending two nights at sea. Such a trip was the next logical step in our progression as cruisers, but It sure sounded appealing to have a buddy-boat to make the crossing with.

And so that became our new plan. We had some discussion about whether we (mostly I) would regret passing up visiting the Rio Dulce, but I honestly felt that based on what we had learned, this was the better option for us. So at 0945 on the morning of June 15th, we untied from the pier at El Milagro marina that had been our home for four weeks and pointed our bow northeast towards Florida.Crossing1

The conditions were perfect, with 10 knots of wind on the starboard beam and two foot seas. With Threepenny Opera in the lead, we rounded the north end of the island and steadied up on a course of 045°.Crossing2 Crossing3

Several hours into the trip, we entered the Yucatan Channel current, the huge flowing river of Caribbean sea headed north to the Gulf of Mexico which eventually becomes the Gulf Stream. The current that we had fought and clawed against to make our way to Isla Mujeres now picked us up and hurtled us northward.Crossing4

Yes, that’s right. Ten point two knots speed over ground in a 37 foot monohull. It actually hit 10.4 at times, but I was never able to catch it with the camera. We were flying! Florida here we come.

We sailed on through the day making excellent time, with mostly clear skies and steady winds. Unfortunately, as always seems to happen, things became a bit less pleasant as night fell.Crossing6

Our experience here onboard the good ship Eagle Too has been one of miserable night passages. We’d hoped that this time it would be different. I’d loaded several movies on the tablet in hopes that while Rhonda or I stood watch, we could relax and enjoy a flick. But as darkness set in, we started encountering squalls that were building off the northwest coast of Cuba, the winds rose, and the seas became confused. In the early AM, after several hours of dodging storms, reefing and unreefing the sails and rolling about in the building swell, I felt we had once again managed to invert the suck-to-fun ratio onboard the boat.

But shortly before the sky started brightening in the east, things calmed down, and we were treated to a view of the night sky and the Milky Way that you can usually only find in an astronomy textbook. Thursday, June 16th dawned clear and mild, with a gentle ESE wind. It was only blowing five or six knots, which would normally mean a boat speed of three or four knots, i.e. time to start the engine. But the residual current in the Florida Straits was still adding several knots to our boat speed, so we were managing six to seven knots SOG in six knots of breeze.

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Eagle Too photographed from Threepenny Opera

Being a bit longer at 42 feet compared to our 37, our buddy-boat would usually pull slowly away from us, having a somewhat higher cruising speed. When they’d get a couple of miles ahead, we’d start the engine and make a sprint to close the distance. As the second day at sea wore on, the conditions became more and more settled, and Rhonda and I took turns grabbing a nap in preparation for another night. Crossing7

And finally, after almost three months and over 1500 nautical miles of cruising, we had our perfect night passage. Mild winds, flat seas, clear skies. More stars than you could possibly imagine, with the Milky Way boldly cutting a wide swath through the middle. No sound except the hissing of the foam from our wake, and an occasional quiet creak from the rigging, the sound of a contented sailboat in its element, being propelled by a gentle breeze. Rhonda watched Finding Nemo during her shift at the helm, and I enjoyed the classic James Bond film Dr. No, pausing every ten to fifteen minutes to scan the horizon, the running lights of our buddy boat still comfortably visible to reassure us that we weren’t alone on this enormous, dark sea. We even had company to talk to through the night. Shortly before dusk, when we were in the middle of the Florida Straits about 80 miles from land, this guy landed on our outboard crane and settled in for the night.Crossing8

We were happy for the company, and he didn’t seem to mind us chatting him up occasionally.

If at least one of our previous night crossings had been as pleasant as this one, we would have had much less anxiety about this trip. Now that we know that it’s not a requirement that night sailing has to suck, we feel better about doing more going forward.

With the rising of the sun on Friday, June 17th, we found ourselves within sight of our destination. Lightening winds had let us pass our buddy-boat, as we do a bit better in light air.Crossing9

The lighthouse on Loggerhead Key hove into view, and we entered the channel to the anchorage at Fort Jefferson to drop anchor.Crossing10 Crossing11

And exactly 48 hours after we threw off the docklines in Mexico, we were anchored in the Dry Tortugas. I told Rhonda we should be proud of ourselves, as not one person in a thousand could have taken a small boat and crossed three hundred miles of open ocean as we had just done.

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A shot of Eagle Too anchored off Fort Jefferson taken from Threepenny Opera

This Tropical Life

It’s now the first week of June, and you know what that means—the 2016 hurricane season has begun. So it’s not surprising that we have a tropical low moving through the area this weekend. We had originally planned to start moving further south this week, but once this system appeared, we decided to stay put and see what happens. Lobsterfest in Belize doesn’t start until June 15th, so we have plenty of time.

Since it’s a bit blustery with intermittent rain outside and we’re just chilling down below, this seemed like a good time to acquaint you with our daily life here on Isla Mujeres. After over two weeks at El Milagro marina, things have definitely settled into a comfortable routine.

Let’s start with how we go ashore. A shallow bank just beyond our slip made it impossible to back in to the marina, so we’re currently tied to the pier bow-first. This means that unfortunately, we have to climb over the bow to get on and off the boat.

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There’s just no graceful way to do this. The marina staff initially gave us a stepping stump to use, which you can see above behind our anchor. We’ve since upgraded to a small set of fiberglass stairs that we acquired when another boat recently departed. It’s not the best way to board a boat, as it really makes you consider your level of adult beverage consumption while ashore, since tequila and gymnastics aren’t really complimentary. But so far we’ve managed without major mishap.

Several times a day we’re climbing ashore to go here.

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These are los baños, or the bathrooms, here at the marina. None of the marinas here have pump out facilities, but they do have very prominent signs stating that it’s illegal to empty your holding tank overboard. So in order to not fill up our tank, we’re usually going ashore to take care of business. It can be an interesting experience, as we share the facility with the local iguana population. From my favorite stall, when you look straight up, you see this:

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A room with a view, sort of an indoor/outdoor experience. This guy is the occasional bathroom monitor, and when on duty keeps a close eye on the comings and goings.TTL20

Please don’t forget to tip your lizard on the way out. They apparently work for chicken bones.TTL21

Every few days we make a supply run into town. There’s a large grocery store about a 20 minutes walk south of here, but we’ve found it much more convenient to take the dinghy north into town, where there is a smaller Xpress Grocery tienda about three blocks from the dinghy dock. Even though it’s not much larger than a convenience store, we find it has everything we need, including a bakery.TTL6 TTL15

It’s true what we’d heard about eggs—once we left the States, they’re no longer refrigerated. It took a little getting used to seeing shelves of eggs just sitting at room temperature. But now we take them back to the boat and leave them sitting on the counter for days before they finally make it into the refrigerator. We haven’t had a bad one yet! (This is actually a picture we took during a shopping trip to Cancun, but it shows you what I’m talking about).TTL22

Using our dinghy Eaglet as a taxi, it’s most convenient to leave her in the water tied to our stern, available at a moment’s notice. But it’s amazing how fast growth forms in these warm tropical waters. After about ten days, she was developing quite a shaggy green beard, and it did not suit her at all. So we beached her to scrub her bottom. It looks like this is going to be a regular chore from now on.TTL23

Fortunately refreshments are easily at hand. They’re literally falling from the trees! We tipped one of the marina staff 25 pesos (about $1.50 USD) and he delivered two fresh coconuts ready to drink.TTL24

While not our favorite way to spend a morning, cleaning Eaglet was a minor inconvenience compared to the problem our neighbor two slips down was experiencing. Apparently a colony of bees had made a home in their mast while they were recently in Guatemala, and the bees were no longer interested in sharing the boat. Since the people had no intention of leaving, an exterminator had to be called to deliver an eviction notice to the bees.TTL16

We popped a couple of beers and sat under the palapa onshore to watch the fun, wincing whenever we heard one of the workers swat and yell from being stung. The bees apparently liked their home very much and did not leave willingly.

With the weather forecast looking pretty dodgy, some folks decided to wrap up their time in Isla Mujeres and skedaddle south toward the Rio Dulce in Guatemala. We waved goodbye to Jerry and Susan on Vita Dulce (a couple we met who were from the Seattle area and were fellow Seahawks fans) as they elected to use the few remaining days of predicted stable weather to make the passage. But that’s a big part of this cruising life. Someone is always arriving or departing.TTL12

We eat, we drink, we socialize with other cruisers. It’s amazing how often we decide that today we’ll cook something onboard for dinner, but come sundowner time we find ourselves at one of the numerous local restaurants instead. It’s just too hard to pass up a good meal for $10 or $15 for the both of us, avoid all the cooking and cleaning up, and have leftovers that will make a great lunch the next day!TTL8
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Most of what we’re served is so well presented that we just have to take pictures before digging in. The server will set down the plates, and Rhonda and I will laugh and say “food porn!” and pull out our phones to snap some shots. We’ve accumulated an extensive collection of photos, a gastronomic record of our journey so far.TTL11TTL25

A funny thing though about the local food. Rhonda looked at me yesterday and said, “You know what I’m craving? Mexican food.” Now mind you, we’re in Mexico, and most of what we’re eating is definitely local food. But I knew exactly what she meant. We have a craving for the food we’d get at Cactus Cantina back in Pensacola, Florida. Good old enchiladas swimming in red sauce, crunchy tacos and chips and salsa. Stuff like that. They actually don’t eat dishes like that in Mexico, or at least, here in the Yucatan. I guess what we’re craving is the Americanized version of northern Mexican food.

So what’s next for us? Well for the time being, we’re going to sit tight a little while longer to let the weather sort itself out. We’ve found another couple headed to the Rio Dulce who might like to buddy-boat down, so we may end up leaving with them. They’re not planning to depart until the end of the month though, and we’re not sure if we should wait that long, so we’ll see. Meanwhile, the thought has crossed our minds that Isla Mujeres sure seems like a pretty nice place with lots to see and do, and maybe just spending the summer hanging around here wouldn’t be a bad idea. The hurricane risk here shouldn’t be any worse than the one we lived with for years back in Pensacola. But that’s the nice thing about being cruisers. With no particular place to be, and all the time in the world to get there, we can just change our minds to suit our circumstances. :-)TTL3

Our Visit With Whale Sharks

Whale sharks—the world’s largest fish.  Intimidatingly huge, these majestic creatures are actually gentle giants. They are filter-feeders, swimming slowly along straining enormous quantities of seawater through their mouths to extract plankton. There are a handful of places in the world where migrating whale sharks pause to feed reasonably close to shore. Isla Mujeres is among the best. The season runs from early June to late August, and we serendipitously found ourselves here on the island just at the season began. Swimming with these leviathans is a uniquely amazing experience, one we knew we had to partake of.WhaleShark1

We were picked up at our marina at 7:30 AM, and were transported to town (by golf cart, naturally) for a light breakfast. Afterwards, we boarded Camila, our ride to the swim site. The sharks congregate at a shoal about 20 miles off the eastern coast of Isla Mujeres, and we traveled for about an hour to reach the spot.

Once there, we prepared to enter the water in pairs to swim alongside the feeding sharks. Our captain would position the boat so that once in the water, we could drift in the current while one or more sharks would glide slowly past. This video will give you a sense of the size of these creatures. Compare the length of the swimming shark to the swimmers alongside.

Finally, our turn came. I hope these videos give you at least a taste of what this experience is like.

After several hours taking turns swimming (we had ten passengers on the trip, and we would usually have four in the water at once), it was time to return to shore. The crew broke out sandwiches and refreshments (water, soft drinks, and of course plenty of cold cervezas) while we headed back toward the island. About a mile from shore, we paused to snorkel for about 45 minutes over a very pretty reef, while one of the crew diced up a red grouper to make fresh cerviche. We then anchored in thee feet of water just off Playa Norte, or North Beach, the popular tourist beach on the north end of the island, where we ate our cerviche and drank more beer from floating tables made of life jackets.NorthBeach

We reboarded the boat to return to the dock, arriving at 2PM, comfortably exhausted, and with our heads filled with exciting memories. The cost? $110 USD per person (plus tips). A bit expensive by local standards, but in our opinion well worth it for a truly unforgettable experience.