South from Tulum

Well, the reef at Tulum sort of taught us something – it is not a fun thing to do. The coral is barely a foot or two beneath the surface and the water breaking over top is just brutal. It sets up a roar that is heard in the background, like white noise, all the time. If the view of the reef doesn’t do it for you, the sound makes sure you know of Mother Nature’s power. Behind the reef in Tulum it was not very calm, not as calm as what you’d think; there were still waves all the time between the tide in and out and the current, usually going in different directions, plus all the wakes of the boats going back and forth all times of day and night. It did, however, break the worst of any weather that went on outside the reef.

In view of that, we were not really looking forward to yet another passage through the reef at Xcalak; the break was narrower and there was a nice ‘drying coral awash’ just inside which causes a hard turn north. At least we would be able to see the awash they were talking about but it didn’t help the nerves any to know it was coming. But that was for tomorrow.

Xcalak from Tulum is about 120 Nmiles, about 24 hours sail. We were expecting 10-15 knot wind from ENE, a 2-3 meter swell from SE, sunny skies and nice weather so an overnight sail was causing some excitement. We had only done short sails or motor sails of half a day or so since David and Melanie came aboard, they really didn’t get much of a taste of sailing yet, so we figured an overnighter would be good. The GPS gave us a route a little too close to shore for comfort, cutting points and markers waay too short, so we went out a little further into deeper water to be safe, approx 3 miles off. It was still only 100 feet or so, not quite as deep as we are comfortable with. Give me thousands and I’m happy, the waters are calmer and the swells longer, not so much chop. We didn’t really know how David and Melanie would react to being out of sight of shore, though, and we also wanted to make good time so we didn’t go out too too far.

They got their first sunset at sea, sort of, watching it go down over the coast of Mexico, and it ws beautiful. Once the stars started coming up, we pretty much all turned our faces skyward to watch the goings-on up there. There was a bit of movement around, not much, but with no moon, everything was bright and clear. Winds were light and seas good, we made about 6.5 knots average which was not bad at all.

After a couple hours, Jean-Marie decided to lay down and try to get some shut-eye for a couple hours so he took the starboard bench in the cockpit. David went below and crashed on the couch behind the table in the salon. Melanie stretched out on the port bench to watch the stars until she fell asleep. I took first watch and cuddled into the back port corner of the cockpit, looking at stars, watching for ships, feeling the night.

It was strange with no moon, almost like being blinded. We had had one trip before with no moon, between Jamaica and Grand Cayman, and it was spooky then too. The stars give a lot of light most of the time but if there are any clouds whatsoever, it gets real dark. It is very disconcerting not being able to see the water and where it’s coming from. But it was fairly calm and a decent night for the most part, it should be okay. I kept an eye on the GPS to ensure we were staying 1.5-2 Nmiles off the course set and that our speed was okay. The boat felt good though and the water was behaving.

After a while, the waves started to feel a little “off”, as if they were starting to come from different directions. Every once in awhile there was one that was larger than the others or was really different. There was a towel across the GPS to cut the light and I looked out to see what was happening but couldn’t really discern the water direction at all.

During one of these peek-arounds, I pushed the life jacket aside (it was right beside my head) to look out at the water and all I saw was a wall of white water right beside us. I couldn’t see the top of it and had only time to yell “Holy Shit! Wave!” and grab on to the bimini frame. The first one pulled us over to starboard before curling on top, going right through the cockpit. I slid down the bench, Melanie fell through the table to the floor, Jean-Marie was just sitting up and braced. The second wave hit immediately after and threw us back around again. By the time we were righted, Jean-Marie was at the helm and checking things out. He immediately turned us east and headed out away from land as fast as possible. If things were going to get rough, we wanted deep water to do it in. (Afterward, we estimated that the waves threw us several hundred yards toward shore. If we were on the GPS course that was set, we would have probably been in deep trouble. As it was, we were able to go deep and get out of it.)

Melanie, bruised and shaken took up a seat to starboard. I pulled up a little farther forward still on the port side and watching for anything else out there. David came up from the salon, dazed and stumbling a bit. He was thrown from the couch and hit the table a good one with his head. There was a little bump forming and a bruise but it didn’t cut the skin. He became a bit confused and had trouble forming words in either French or English but he was somewhat cognizant. His eyes were fine, his motor skills were fine although his left hand tingled a bit and he was getting a headache. I was wondering about a mild concussion and checked him out from that angle.

We didn’t worry about trying to pick up or clean up that night at all, just pushing things out of the way or at least clearing the floor so we didn’t trip over anything. Melanie took David downstairs and set him up on the couch and kept him awake for another hour or two, talking and making sure he was starting to get a clearer head. They finally were able to sleep after a couple hours, we felt David was going to be fine. (I did go and wake them up later just to be sure he was okay) Jean-Marie and I found some dry-ish clothes to put on and wrapped in large towels then huddled in the cockpit trying to keep warm; we may have dozed on and off but were way too uncomfortable (and watchful) to nod off. We spent a wet and cold night that night.

Morning dawned as if nothing had happened, calm seas and fair winds and a brilliant sunrise. We had hot coffee and tried to warm up in the sun. Looking at the damage, we found that everything that started on the port side was now on the starboard floor….printer, camera, phones, charts, tools. Of course, our nav station and electronics table are on the port side so everything went flying. (I wonder if the insurance company will believe a rogue wave??) Of course, the one thing that we wouldn’t have minded going flying and breaking was J-M’s computer (he needs a new one so badly) and of course, it stayed put and rode through just fine. Go figure!

So we spent a while cleaning up and putting things right when we heard voices on the radio. There had been a navy ship plowing the waters just off from us for the past half hour or so and it sounded like they were calling us. Jean-Marie answered them and they told us to shut down and prepare to be boarded. We had been in Mexico or Mexican waters since 27 Dec and they now decide to board us – 2 hours out of the last port of entry!

The battleship pulled up about ½ mile away and lowered their tender and crew which made its way over to us. There were about 5 or 6 guys visible on deck, all watching us as they drove up and around, and there were guns. The water, being a bit rough and choppy, made for an interesting spectacle as they waited for just the right bob up to hop over and they landed 5 onto our boat. Three of them seemed to be ordinary seamen with a different-looking uniform and the other two were outfitted much like a SWAT team with their vests and gloves and helmets and facemasks. The masks threw us for a moment until we realized it was because of retaliation in the country. If they make a drug stop or another type of raid, they don’t want to be recognized; the bad guys really like to exact their revenge on both the soldiers and their families. Understandable. So we relaxed a bit on that score.

Three stayed up top gathering paperwork, writing and signing and we wrote and signed and they took pictures of every document and more writing and signing. Sheesh! They must have stock in PaperMate pens or The other two went below with Jean-Marie as guide to look into everything…and I mean everything! They spent 20 minutes just in the engine compartment, then poked and prodded and took pictures throughout the boat including all the storage cubbies, personal drawers and bags, in the bathroom, in the chart table – just everywhere. After over an hour of sweating in their heavy suits, they deemed us safe. With big smiles and handshakes they hopped over to their bobbing boat and took off. We raised sail and turned ourselves south again to try and make up the time.

Not even an hour later, we were hailed by another little navy boat that sorta looked like a McHale’s Navy corvette with all kinds of questions. We told them we had just been boarded by the battleship, gave our names and all that and, after a little while (during which I think they were checking on radio) they said thank you, see ya later. Whew! The last thing we needed was another 2 hour stopover – we needed the daylight and good seas to make it through the Xcalak reef.

Coming upon the reef opening at the proper coordinates a little later, we couldn’t quite see the two towers we were supposed to line up. We found the big one no problem but just “I think I see it but I’m not sure” was not good enough to get through that reef. We couldn’t really see the opening from the outside, it ALL looked like crap. So we got onto the radio and called Port Authority – which is supposed to be monitoring 24/7 – and finally got an answer from Maria and Pablo (not Port Authority). They came out in their inflatable and told us to line up on them to get through the reef. THEM we could see just fine. So surfing in on 6 foot waves with the bow swinging up and down and all over the place, we made it through. Inside was so calm in comparison and we found a good spot to anchor quickly – 2 drops and we were good.  🙂


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