It’s Always Something – or – If It Can, It Will (Part 3)

As I recall in the previous part of this adventure, I left everyone hanging over the holidays with a question…I believe it was – have you ever thought of your own mortality when you are sailing along in a fairly good-sized boat and suddenly see a living creature in the water that is bigger than the boat you are on…? This is where the promised “Jonah and the Whale” part comes in.

Well, for the answer to the question, we all had that feeling mid-afternoon the next day almost due West of Cabo San Antonio and right in the middle of the Cozumel Channel, sometimes referred to as the Straight of Campeché.

We were trying to work our way south against a 2 to 3 knot current off our port beam. As I recall, we had just cleaned up from lunch and everyone was on deck enjoying a beautifully clear day when, just aft and to port, we all heard simultaneously a loud “whooshing” sound followed by an even louder slap on the water. Imagine standing in waist deep water with your arm above your head – you smack the water as hard as you can with your flat palm, that was the sound of the slap except about a million times louder.

We all turned to investigate the commotion and what did appear but two large gray whales, not tiny reindeer. They were swimming in unison and evidently had just surfaced and we turned just in time to see their backs arc as they once again dove under. These things were huge! As you recall we were on a forty-plus-foot sailing vessel and we seemed small in comparison. My guess was that they were mates and I seem to remember that whales are monogamous. At least I hoped so. I also remember reading somewhere that sometimes whales mistake the underbodies of sailboats for other whales. We all hoped that the monogamous part was true and they would not come acourtin’.

They continued to match our course at about 100 yards away. It seems, however, as the minutes passed that each surfacing seemed to get closer and closer. We all thought of the Jonah and the Whale story as they continued to get closer. Just one friendly mislaid flap of either of their tales could have put us under in a flash. It might have been further but . . . it seemed they were no further than 100 feet away from our port beam. This was the last we saw of them close-up and personal. I swear one of them winked at me as they changed course and moved away, never to be seen again. …always wondered which one winked.

Believe it or not the rest of the trip went smoothly, that is until we approached the Isla Mujeres anchorage at 0200. We lowered sails, engaged the engine and raised the “Q” flag as we approached the harbor. It was decided we would try to find a spot to anchor and clear customs the next day. Luckily, one of the students confessed to being fluent in Spanish.

If you have ever been boating at night, even in familiar territory, you know that things look much different. We had all studied the chart and consulted the cruising guide for specific information on how to make our entrance. I had left it up to the students to actually identify markers and steer the course in until we found a proper anchoring area. The excitement had finally built to a crescendo as all the students realized that they had successfully found Isla Mujeres much the way Columbus might have. I think in their minds we were there. Well, you know the story about it ain’t over until it’s over.

We had not anchored and were still underway, however, in their exuberance I think the students not only lost track of the identifying markers but at one point started to argue about which direction to steer. The fatigue and frustration obviously had set in and was causing some confusion. One of the students finally said “Okay, if you think you’re right, you take the helm.” I don’t think the student that this message was directed to heard it because I watched in awe at a vacant seat behind the wheel, while everyone was scanning the water looking for aides to navigation and landmarks.

I grabbed the wheel and turned sharply away from one of the landmarks they were looking for – a pier. The fishermen on the pier look frightened, and were audibly mumbling, as we approached them head on. “Okay guys, I know you are tired, but we have to anchor safely in order to get some rest” I said encouragingly. “Just look at your notes and get a sense of where we are. The pier is now “thank God” off our port quarter and we are approaching the number 8 red buoy off our starboard bow.” Everyone finally settled down as we glided out of the narrow channel into the greater expanse of the designated anchorage. The anchoring itself was uneventful, we settled in, took some bearings to check in an hour or so and everyone crashed. I knew I wouldn’t wake up to check our anchoring position if I went to sleep, so I kept an eye open for at least 40 minutes and checked to make sure we weren’t dragging anchor before closing them both for the night, or what was left of it.

Even the bright sun didn’t wake everyone. It wasn’t until a shrimp trawler passed leaving a 4-foot wake which jostled us all out of our bunks. Everyone was in a much better mood and they all decided to pitch in and cook breakfast prior to raising anchor and motoring to the fuel dock. Some of the students would take on the task of checking out the engine and refueling while I and our “fluent” Spanish-speaker cleared customs. I thought there might have been some exaggeration on the part of the student who claimed to be fluent when he was unable to decipher enough of the crew list form, which was in Spanish. “Nombre means name,” I volunteered with a slight scowl. After I completed the crew list with the assistance of “me gringo amigo,” we started the engine and motored toward the fuel dock.

Jonathan, who hadn’t been green in several days now, asked if he could dock the boat alongside. “I’ve never docked a boat this large before,” he said. No one objected so he was left at the helm as everyone else prepared lines and fenders. We were a couple of hundred yards from the fuel dock when I heard Jonathan say, “Capt. Matt, I think we have a problem.” I looked around to find Jonathan spinning the wheel, first in one direction and then in the other, lock to lock, as we continued in a straight line. We had just lost our wheel steering.

Luckily, we had already identified where the manual emergency tiller was when we had problems in the beginning. A precaution, just in case. “Jonathan, throttle off and shift to neutral. Mike, get the emergency tiller. Joe, ready the anchor just in case.” I ordered. Everyone scrambled and in no time we had the emergency tiller in place. “Oh, just another challenge,” I said, as we realized that the emergency tiller was too long and would not pass by the binnacle. To solve the problem we had to rig it backward off the stern and steer by reaching through the stern rail. Of course, because the tiller was backward, it didn’t behave backward as it would if it were rigged forward. (Those who understand tillers will know what this gibberish means.)

Since Jonathan had never docked a boat that big and had never operated a tiller, this shouldn’t be confusing to him, so he was still elected to bring the boat alongside. (We rigged extra fenders.) Actually, he did quite well with some coaching and me operating the throttle and clutch and in no time we were tied at the fuel dock.

The boat was fueled as I, without my embarrassed gringo, walked to the customs house. Luckily, all those years I spent in South Texas, two years of high school Spanish, and two years of college Spanish paid off. Clearing customs was a breeze and I’m sure that it had nothing to do with the fact that the customs agent sounded like he was from Massachusetts.

We decided not to anchor out without a dinghy (if you remember from Part I), rather we would rent a boat slip in which to tie up. Once secure, we assessed our situation and made a list of parts that we needed for steering repairs, repairs for the dinghy and other miscellaneous items. Our plan was to be in port for four days prior to heading home, so we had some time but had to order parts right away.

By the end of the afternoon we had ordered parts that would be at the Cancun Airport the next day. After looking closely at the dinghy, a simple repair kit was not going to solve the problem of the large gash, not to mention the fact that the floorboards had been lost at sea. Another phone call and we had an inflatable liferaft on the way to be delivered with the parts.

Isla Mujeres is a beautiful location and the people are terrific. Most of the restaurants have fresh fish for every meal and by fresh I mean – right before peak meal times they have fish delivered by fishermen from the docks just a couple of blocks or less away.

We had been following the weather all along our trip to Isla, via a portable single side-band receiver. Now that we were in port we would look more closely at the depression that was moving through the Caribbean and was due to move across Cuba in the next 48 to 72 hours. Our search for a weather forecast left us a little empty since the few TVs we could find on the Island did not have cable and they were so blurry as to be worse than bad radar. We did find a boat in the marina with a weather fax, unfortunately it didn’t work. So…being ingenious, and besides he promised his spouse he would, one of the students called home and had his wife tune into the weather channel and hold the receiver close so we could all hear.

As we feared, the depression had become a disturbance and was expected to increase to a tropical storm in the next 24 hours. And…although it was expected to turn to a more northerly direction as it crossed Cuba, you can never tell about such things.

I just realized how long this segment has gotten and we haven’t even received parts, battled the storm or as I promised in the beginning, talked about the celebration as we returned to Key West, let alone some of the other adventures along the way on our return. Looks like I’ll have to make one more installment to finish the story. Stay tuned for the final chapter of Capt. Matt’s great adventure next week.

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