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.
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.
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°.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The lighthouse on Loggerhead Key hove into view, and we entered the channel to the anchorage at Fort Jefferson to drop anchor.
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.
A shot of Eagle Too anchored off Fort Jefferson taken from Threepenny Opera