Yep. I am writing this from a little waterside bar in Isla Mujeres Mexico. A bit of a curve ball, but spontaneity goes well with the sport.
We met Nate and Maryam during “happy hour” at the boot key harbor tiki hut.
Emilia was playing with her friends with all the bean bags for corn hole hoarded up in her arms. A couple approached her and managed to peel the bean bags away from her kung fu grip. I was struck by their positive directness as they explained to Emilia that, yes, they needed all of the bean bags to play corn hole. For once, I didn’t have to intervene and Emilia stuck by their side the entire time as they taught her the game.
The following day we met Nate and Maryam formally at the tiki during a marine flea market, and it turns out they have a leopard 40; only a few years newer, and 2 feet longer. Basically the same boat.
They only go offshore in their boat, and their cruising plans are exotic and enticing. Maryam explained beautifully:
“I want to be somewhere where people look at me funny, and I look at them funny.”
So, not the Bahamas. More like the Solomon Islands, Sri Lanka, somewhere I probably can’t pronounce. Far away places I could only dream of sailing to, and where tourists are next to none. I explained to Maryam that, no, we haven’t really been anywhere in our boat because we just don’t have the experience we need, to get the experience we need, to take the kids anywhere safely. (The redundancy is intentional).
“Oh, well, why don’t you come with us to Isla Mujeres on Tuesday?”
“Are you serious?”
I jumped in the dinghy as fast as I could and zipped over to our boat in the mooring field and ran down the companionway into our stateroom. “Did I bring our passports?!!!”
After some frantic searching, there they were, with my socks.
I zipped back over to the tiki.
“Yes! We would love to!”
Nate and Maryam have oceans of sailing experience, and their boat is just like ours. This could be a huge game changer for us.
We had dinner on their boat Ooga Chaka that night, and made plans to set sail Tuesday for the Dry Tortugas, and then straight to Isla Mujeres. Their boat was only two feet longer, but wow. It was like the Taj Majal compared to our little condo on the water. They call it : two-foot-itis. And I’ve got it.
Oh, and I guess I should mention (for those of you that think we are crazier than coconuts) that we had some mutual friends in Boot Key Harbor who could vouch that they were not going to murder us in our sleep in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico.
We set off mid day on Tuesday for the Dry Tortugas. The seas were mild, 4-6 feet, but they still had me gripping the rails with white knuckles. The interval was short adding a wicked chop.
It’s 130 miles from Marathon Key to the Dry Tortugas. As the waters turned from light green to a royal blue, I began to turn from my usual olive brown to an awful shade of olive green.
Maryam made an amazing white bean soup which I quickly threw right back into the puke bucket.
Trying to do anything down below, or even worse, trying to use a newly designed (not quite perfected yet) composting toilet while getting sloshed in all directions like a washing machine, is really really uncomfortable. Almost unbearable.
Maryam and Nate bought their boat in Panama about a year ago, and brought it straight to Florida. Their motors gave out en route, so they sailed the entire way, all the way into their slip in Florida. They overhauled their boat, including an impressive transformation to electric motors, powered by a mountain of solar panels towering over the back of their boat like Mount Everest. The engines only run 3-4 hours before needing another day of solar to recharge. The lack of endless motor power on the boat made our journey even more exciting when the winds died down. Too little wind can be as unsettling as too much wind.
We sailed all day, all night, until mid day the following day to the Dry Tortugas. We did 3 hour night shifts. Sleep was definitely not paying me a visit that first night. Too much excitement and anticipation. The winds died into the night and without motor-sailing, we were at the mercy of our floppy sails.
The next day the winds picked up and we sailed into the blue green waters of the Dry Tortugas like a post card.
Named for the abundance of turtles sighted by Ponce de Leon upon discovery, the Dry Tortugas is home to the historical Fort Jefferson. There was a huge anchorage about a mile north of the fort for boats to come and resupply en shipping route from Louisiana through the Gulf of Mexico.
The fort was taken by the north with a quickness at the start of the Civil War. It was used as a prison for southerners during the civil war. Slave labor started the construction of the fort, and prison labor finished it. It’s kind of ironic that the people who fought to keep slavery alive, ended up taking up the work of slaves and finishing the construction of Fort Jefferson. The prisoners ate rotten meat and stale bread. The bread was made of “twigs, dirt, bugs and flour”. Quoted from one of the 3 Lincoln conspirators imprisoned there.
Too bad they couldn’t feast on one of the many lobsters dying of old age right outside the fort.
Too bad we couldn’t either. Lobster season closed right before our arrival. And they would probably lock us up for life if we ate a lobster out of the national park. Luckily, Adam finally put his lobster tickler to use and caught us a FEAST right outside Bahia Honda a few weeks prior. Thanks to my lovely cousin Stephanie who came to visit for a week and courageously shared in our adventuring!
Next to our anchorage was a huge nesting ground for Sootie Terns. Like HUGE. Thousands upon thousands of angry and excitable birds. The noise was constant.
Once we got close, it was far from a peaceful sight, and more kin to a battle ground of irritable foul.
Adam and I snorkeled around the moat that surrounds Fort Jefferson on the first day, and we all took turns snorkeling around the reef behind our anchorage on the second day.
Maryam caught sight of an impressive reef shark. And we saw lobsters like dinosaurs.
We sat around that night and watched the aquarium come into focus around the illuminated underbelly of Ooga Chaka. A Goliath Grouper and a Nurse Shark swam under the boat for hours amidst schools of snappers and some very mysterious unidentified swimming objects.
Here is Mr. Big in the daylight.
It didn’t take long for the conflict bus to pay us a visit, thanks to Yours Truly. The original plan was to sail to the Tortugas on Tuesday, arrive Wednesday, and begin our sail to Mexico on Thursday. Windy and Predict Wind are the apps that we used to check the weather. They are fairly good predictors till about 3-4 days out. We had no service to check those apps once got to the Tortugas, we would have to fall back on the previous report that we last checked before leaving. Once we got a taste of the lovely reef behind our boat, Nate and Maryam decided to stay another day. And then, another day. And at that point, I knew that the weather we checked on Tuesday wasn’t going to hold very true that many days out. Nate was able to check the Garmin for local weather, but it didn’t give us a prediction of what was happening in the Gulf. And a northerly front was coming down on Friday. I started to push back because I didn’t want to go without a reliable weather prediction. Nate’s argument was that I didn’t trust his judgement, and my argument was that there was no judgement to trust if he didn’t look at an updated weather report.
I wasn’t so much advocating that we leave early, as much as I was advocating that we leave with a reliable weather report. Our crossing to Mexico was going to take us over the Gulf Stream not once, but twice, with up to a 4 knot current pushing against us.
I don’t want to blame it on my kids, but yeah, its their fault. If it weren’t for them I would row across the Gulf of Mexico in a canoe if that’s what Nate wanted to do.
But I didn’t want to look back on this and regret any decisions I made as a mother. That’s mommy kryptonite right there.
I was fine to stay for another day, two days or a heck, even an entire week if Nate could just access some kind of weather report from our location to Isla Mujeres.
Chris Parker came to mind. He offers specialized weather reports via Garmin In Reach for situations just like this. I didn’t need internet for that.
Chris Parker is the man.
I sent the request via the Garmin, and since I’m already a subscriber to his weather reports, it was eezy peezy getting the individualized report back.
The winds were good, nothing exceeding 30 knots. Although Nate kept saying, “even if it does blow over 40 knots, the boat can take it.” Yes I know it can, but can I?
With our updated weather report, I was satisfied to stay as long as they wanted. I wish I could have gotten that report without saying anything to them at all, since I know it made them feel scrutinized. But I just couldn’t see a way around it while maintaining at least some semblance of caution. Although, according to Adam, the time to second guess any of the captain’s decision was before I stepped onto his boat.
He’s probably right.
But being the wonderful communicators and brilliant strategists that Nate and Maryam are, they were more than accommodating and let me use the In Reach to get my weather report without any complaint.
With the next morning came the cold winds from the northerly front, kicking up the sand and ruining any good snorkeling visibility. Nate and Maryam decided to leave then and there, on Friday.
I was beside myself with anticipatory anxiety, but most of that evaporated on the winds of our departure.
Things are rarely as hairy as you think they are going to be. The forward momentum of the boat was enough to stave away most of my fears.
Just as I was beginning to relax…
an ominous and foreboding sight caught all of us off guard as soon as we hit the big water.
Adam pointed off the bow and shouted as we all ran up to see a dinghy drifting alone, slapping up and down the waves without any thrust. “Is there anyone in it?” Nate yelled as we all struggled to get a plan in action. I grabbed the binoculars and confirmed that it was empty. There was a motor on the back, and some fishing poles and other random items.
Adam grabbed the boat hook and tried to hook the lines running along side it but missed. Lucky he did, because first of all, what were we going to do with a partially deflated dingy? And second of all, the weight of the dinghy and motor would have pulled the boat hook out of his hand if it didn’t pull him completely off the boat.
Years ago I traveled to Cuba, and got to know many local artists while I was there. I wouldn’t put it past any of them to take whatever floating vessel they could get their hands on if it had a chance of bringing them stateside. They were all miserably desperate to come to Floridian shores. I tried to shake off my morbid imaginings, and looked ahead towards our destination. But try as I might, it felt like the start of a really bad movie. You know the kind. One of those sailing movies where the title gives away the ending.
Most likely the dinghy came off the back of someone’s tow line before they even knew it was gone.
Seeing that dinghy out there, unmanned and deflating, riding up and down the swells in the middle of the open water, well.. It was a cold realization of just how small and insignificant we are.
And I shit you not, about 5 minutes later, Adam spotted a flip flop trailing along behind the lost and unfortunate dinghy.
Seriously? I couldn’t make this up if I tried.
A few hours into our journey the swells did inspire a fearsome awe in me that was equal parts amazement and disquiet. I gave all my friends back home a watery eyed hug in my mind, as we ascended and descended the first of many hills on the aquatic landscape. We had a steady breeze around 20 knots gusting to 25 for the first 24 hours. The swells died down by the second day. The seas were moderate, becoming mild. It felt warm and less isolating knowing that we had a few friends watching our progress on the Garmin In Reach. It sends out little bread crumbs of gps coordinates creating a path that others can follow through a link. This device is a really handy little sailing tool.
Spotted dolphins appeared at the bow, bursting with playful energy.
They kept arriving in groups of twos and threes from their villages in the sea, until we had a countless gathering of mammals preceding us. I’m not sure what the occasion was, but Emilia was convinced that they came to have a party for my birthday. What a place to turn 35! My phone stuck it to me good though and lost all my messages (including my birthday texts!) for the entire 10 days we were gone.
When the sun went down, I went out to feel the night sky covering me up in a blanket of open vastness peppered with stars.
Late that night I lied awake in our bed and contemplated the boat in the middle of the ocean; a lone rubber ducky bobbing around in the big bad blue. I continued to contemplate the existential anomalies of humankind as the water slapped the hulls of the boat with a force like Solomon’s judgement. Quite a spanking.
I woke up later in the wee hours of our second night while Adam and Nate were rushing around the cockpit in a less than relaxed manner. (Which is saying a lot for Nate. He’s cooler than a cucumber in the Arctic Tundra.) The look in Adam’s eyes was full to bursting with a story that he couldn’t tell me until the next day. Here it is in his words:
“I could see the lights materialize on the northern horizon, dimly lit against the surface of the ocean. I thought, there’s a ship. I’ll need to keep an eye on that. The spacing of the 2 deck lights was unusually narrow, making me wonder. A few minutes later, I could still see the lights, basically in the same place, but a little brighter. Hmm, that’s interesting, I thought. This ship MIGHT be headed right for us. It’s hard to tell in the dark where this particular night was well lit with container ships. But these lights had my attention more than most. I had a feeling that this problem wasn’t just going to go away.
A few minutes passed and the ship’s lights were bigger still, and I started to get the feeling that this wasn’t going to resolve itself without some drama. I didn’t really know what I was looking at, but it wasn’t a comfortable feeling, that’s for sure.
I started to seriously get worried. I knew that Nate would probably need to get involved, but I didn’t think it was necessary yet. Ill wait another minute just in case I’m wrong about this. It’s late, I’m tired, it’s dark. It’s really unlikely that this ship is actually headed right for us, isn’t it?
A moment later, and I mean literally like 15 seconds later, I see the lights are very close, clearly spaced, creating a clear silhouette with their position and I know this is actually happening. I’m hovering over Nate’s window, ready to knock and wake him, but still hoping its not necessary. With that, the AIS alarm goes off and I hurriedly knock on the window for the Captain. Nate appears within 3 seconds and I say, ‘uh, there’s a ship there, I think its getting pretty close to us.’ He confirms that it is very
close, and he’s not sure which ways it’s actually going. Looking through the binoculars, trying to see port or starboard lights with no luck. ‘Do you see a red light?’ He asks. I peek through the binoculars for a few seconds, looking hard. ‘No, I don’t.’ Hmm, we were both confused, and pretty on edge at this moment trying to guess where this ship is headed. It’s dreadfully close, although still cloaked in complete darkness except for its array of dull yellow lights that tells us nothing about its direction.
Just at that moment, he says, ‘there, I see a green light,’ as the ship started to turn to port with a bright green spot growing from its side. Earlier, the ship was looking dead at us, so no green or red had been visible at all, until it actually altered course to avoid hitting us. Suddenly, I could see the enormity of this ship, a dark black shadow, darker than the surrounding moonlit sky and black water. A terrifying ghost ship made of steel no less than 5 stories tall running straight at us without care or feeling. Holy shit, I thought. Thats f***** up. It was as silent as the gentle waves softly patting our hull, but as massive as a Goliath train just seconds away from disaster. The wind continued to blow calm and gentle, completely unaware, or unsympathetic of our situation.
‘That was close,’ Nate said. I felt responsible for the calamity, but also relieved that we were safe again. The ship continued on behind us, passing about 800’ behind our boat as it passed. I could smell the diesel from its engines, and feel the vibration as it changed course.
With no communication to or from the ship throughout the entire event, It felt strange that we were still holding our original course, as if to say, yea, this is how we deal with the situation. Just sit tight, and they’ll go around you. It just didn’t feel right. Once the ship was in close range, we were robbed of any maneuverability. If we go left, he might also go left, but like 15x faster. It didn’t help that the wind died earlier, giving us only about 2 knots of speed. I made a point to learn the light display and red and green indicators of direction over the next 2 minutes of my life, so as to prevent that from ever happening again. Next time I see a big boat and I’m unsure of its direction, I am going to get on the radio and F***ing ask.”
And my two cents is that it doesn’t hurt to have a little more warning from the AIS alarm. Ooga Chaka’s alarm went off only a minute or two before crunch time.
I can’t relay the true story of this trip without giving some credit where credit is due. From start to finish, our kids were absolutely amazing. While I was trying not to shit my pants on this epic journey, our little adventure biscuits were having a grand time doing what the heck ever and adapting to all the changes around us like space pilots. Pepper learned to walk on our boat earlier in the year, and now she has got sea legs like a cormorant.
The next morning was our third full day in the open water. I was excited, and ready to see some land. We saw some birds occasionally throughout the entire journey, which made me tired to even contemplate what their journey must feel like. We had two birds fly around our boat as we passed over Cuba, and for a moment I thought they might use us to take a little break from their ultra marathon flight.
I had no expectations for this trip. There wasn’t time! We met Nate and Maryam on Saturday, and left the next Tuesday. There was barely time to get groceries and diapers for our upcoming journey, let alone time to build up some unnecessary expectations. But I’ll tell you what I didn’t expect: I did not expect the camaraderie of this trip to be as amazing and life changing as the trip itself. I had someone tell me once, critically, (and they weren’t far off the mark) that I made having fun ‘my job’. As if that were a bad thing. Well, I met my match in that department! These two brilliant mold breakers have made a career of having fun.
We approached Isla Mujeres about mid day. The water was an almost fluorescent shade of aqua marine blue. It enticed us with snorkel magic. We couldn’t wait to get our heads in that.
And when we did. It did not disappoint.
When we went to shore and walked around some, I was immediately hit with the nostalgia of Latin American travel. I forgot how much I love hearing the language and the music, and seeing the colorful shacks and concrete structures, and smelling the wood fired ovens and unmistakable scent of pork on the fire. And where motorcycles are turned into trucks.
And driving down the winding roads, getting passed by two guys on a scooter, one of them balancing a 20 foot ladder on his shoulder without a care in the world; well, it’s inspiring.
We spent about 5 days touring Isla Mujeres, and getting our snorkel fix. The visibility was incredible, and the fish were awesome.
We just missed whale shark season by about a month. But hey, now that we have made the trip, there’s nothing stopping us from coming here again, on our own boat.
It wasn’t until the very last day (or maybe two) that our kids unveiled their dark side and got on everyone’s nerves. Perfect timing really.
On our dinghy ride back to the boat the evening before our flight, Emilia was crying about who knows what, and Pepper, without a moments hesitation, grabbed her Kikio and threw it in the water! Dear god, the sound from Emilia’s mouth that followed was like the piercing wail of a banshee. You definitely would have thought that a body had been thrown overboard, not a dirty old stuffy. Pepper didn’t even look back.
I guess the sibling rivalry has begun.
After we said our goodbyes in the light of a full moon, we set off on a grueling 14 hours of travel to get back to our boat in Boot Key Harbor. And the minute we got into the parking lot of the marina we saw our friend Greg, who offered to give us a dinghy ride back to our boat. We were thrown welcome back waves from friends at the marina and from neighboring boats. I wasn’t expecting such a warm reception from our little temporary home on the community waters here in Boot Key Harbor.
Heart Heart Heart.
Everything has its charm.