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
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
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
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
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
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
"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.