Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Happy Holidays!

Scout, Nan and John at Coconut Grove Sailing Club
Christmas 2013

Dear Family and Friends,

Greetings from Miami! Nan, Scout and I are settled here now in a tiny Coconut Grove apartment after a whirlwind year. Our adventure started in April, when we quit our jobs, put our belongings in storage, listed our Grand Junction house for rent, and started driving east through a spring snowstorm. We dropped Scout off with Nan’s sister Monica in Arkansas and continued on to Savannah to see my folks and our sailboat, Whispering Jesse. We had three weeks to get the boat ready before our crew members, Nan’s brother Jim, Jim’s friend Jack, and our friend Mike, flew out to meet us for a big sail south. The five of us made landfalls in St. Augustine, Fort Pierce, and Key West before saying good-bye to Nan, sailing the final four-day leg to Isla Mujeres, Mexico, and limping into a slip at El Milagro Marina just before Memorial Day.

Our plan was to stay in Isla Mujeres indefinitely, sharpening our sailing and Spanish skills, and we went so far as to secure temporary residency status, but we soon realized that there were factors not in our favor. We miscalculated the heat of the Mexican summer and were unable to fly Scout down due to the airlines’ eighty-degree flight restriction for pets. The heat—and the biting insects—were unrelenting. The boat’s meager air conditioning could not keep up, and we jumped ship for a small, nicely air-conditioned studio at the marina. Nan went home to visit her mother in Manitowoc, and I attended a family gathering in San Diego to celebrate my father’s eightieth birthday, both trips complicated by our status as temporary residents of Mexico.

I had expected to earn some income doing remote project work, but it didn’t pan out, and we realized by the end of June that we would need to make other plans. I posted my resume online and started working with recruiters. Eventually, I was offered a software engineering position in Miami, but not before the end of August, when we had already left our boat and our island friends, flown to Miami for interviews, driven to Arkansas to get Scout, and then headed up to Wisconsin to see family and attend weddings. Congratulations to Claire and John, and to Debbie and Gene!

We drove out to Grand Junction in late September to pack up some belongings, put our house up for sale, and rent a U-Haul truck and trailer. We stayed a week there with our good friends Rich and Diane, whose hospitality carried us east again on the five-day drive to Miami.

So here we are, almost three months later, and it’s not feeling much like Christmas. We have watched the snowy weather pass to the north, while enjoying warm, humid days and occasional rain. There are lights and decorations, but they look out of place against the green grass and palm trees. We will miss skiing this year, but we are looking forward to a trip to Isla Mujeres in a few weeks to see how the boat is doing. If all goes well, we will sail her up in May and moor her at the Coconut Grove Sailing Club, just a quick mile away. Instead of exploring the western Caribbean, we will be sailing to the Keys and the Bahamas, and looking ahead to another big adventure in a few years.

If your travels bring you this way, please look us up. We would be happy to show you around our adopted home and take you out for a sail. Wishing you peace and joy this holiday season!

Love,



Monday, December 16, 2013

Remaking History at El Milagro Beach Hotel and Marina

by John Lichty

Julio knows the history better than anyone. He has been on the property for over thirty years, starting long before it became what it is today, a unique marina and resort in Isla Mujeres, Mexico. Back then, the hangar-like concrete building that is now the centerpiece of El Milagro Beach Hotel and Marina was a shrimp processing plant named Boca Iglesias and Julio was a shrimp boat captain. But in September 1988, Hurricane Gilbert ravaged Isla Mujeres and destroyed the local shrimp habitat. The once prosperous operation went into decline and languished for many years.
(Click any image for a full-size slideshow.)

Eric Schott, a high-end sales and leasing agent with Coldwell Banker in Santa Barbara, California, visited the property early in 2005 and met Julio, who was still piloting shrimp boats all those years later. Eric was impressed by the property’s location and potential, and he envisioned transforming it into a marina and resort, one that would offer the peace and tranquility not found in the noisy, crowded El Centro but still be located within easy walking distance.
In February 2005, Eric began the complicated process of purchasing the property, along with the adjoining Isla Blanca fishermen’s co-op, and closed the transaction early in the summer of 2006. He hired Julio to help him manage the project and later also hired Jaime, a young local man with excellent English skills acquired as a bartender. The three men had a daunting task ahead of them, as the early photos indicate. They began by removing tons of trash from the grounds and waterfront, selling off the old shrimp boats, and rebuilding the neglected pier.
Architects were hired to present plans for a combination marina and resort. Each proposed tearing down all the existing structures, including the signature concrete hangar, and starting from scratch. Eric’s intuition told him that this was the wrong approach, and his experience rehabbing concrete buildings in California gave him the confidence to undertake the design on his own. He would preserve the original structures and adapt them to their new purposes as lodging, work space, and community areas.
Late in the summer of 2006, just a few months after the project was begun, El Milagro Beach Hotel and Marina opened for business with the marina, the CabaƱa unit, the Penthouse unit, and Villa 1 available for rental. The name “El Milagro” (The Miracle) was chosen by Eric because, as he explained, “it was a miracle that we were able to get the place open.” Accelerated development was possible because of Eric’s desire to keep it all as simple as possible. The humble origins of the buildings naturally lent themselves to this approach, and the interiors of the rooms reflect it: the wooden furniture is locally made, much of it by Julio, Jaime, and their talented crew in the on-site workshop; the doors and windows are natural, unfinished wood; the curtains are colorful Mexican tapestries; the floors and bathrooms feature locally made tile; and Talavera figurines adorn the pastel-colored walls. “What more do you need?” Eric asks with a smile. Just the air conditioners, flat-screen televisions, and kitchenettes that complete each room.
In keeping with the idea of simplicity, there is no bar, or restaurant, or large swimming pool at El Milagro. Eric believes that these amenities would only encourage nonguests to visit the grounds, and he prefers the quiet and serenity of his limited number of guests. Instead, he provides a well-equipped community kitchen, a dipping pool created by removing the top of an original concrete cistern, and an air-conditioned movie theater with a projector, DVD player, and comfortable couches. The kitchen, pool, and theater, as well as the large waterfront palapa, act as natural meeting places and encourage guests to interact with one another, enhancing the community feel of the place.
After the initial burst, the pace of development at El Milagro slowed to a stop for a few years while Eric worked out the details necessary for the next round of improvements. Starting in 2010, the push was on to add ten additional lodging units. A single-story wall was built separating the interior of the hangar and providing a location for a stairway and balcony to a second floor, where three villas and two studios were added above the villas on the ground floor. There is room for another villa on the second floor, but the space serves now as the furniture workshop, and Eric plans to leave it that way. Two new Ocean Garden units were created from the space below the Penthouse, and the entire grounds were elaborately landscaped with palm trees, native plants, and bubbling fountains.
El Milagro feels complete now. The view of the resort from the end of the sunset pier extending out from the manicured beach is tranquil and inviting. Hammocks hang between the shading palm trees, and lounge chairs line the sand below thatched palapas. For the energetic, there are kayaks and paddle boards to explore the bay and bicycles to tour the island. Signature blue Adirondack chairs are placed in strategic locations, perfect for watching a sunset mark the end of a another day in paradise. A just-completed tiling project, filling in the space from the community kitchen to the marina pier with terra cotta red, locally made tiles and Talavera borders, provides the finishing touch of authentic Mexico.
Julio and Jaime are still looking after things at El Milagro. Jaime is the official manager, and Julio is the assistant manager and dockmaster, licensed to conduct on-site immigration services. Eric says the staff of seven full-time local people has not changed in many months. “They like working here.” It shows in the effort they put forth for every guest and in the way they welcome new guests into the extended El Milagro family. The family feeling is regularly reinforced by the amazing seafood barbecues that Jaime and Julio organize every few weeks for guests and staff alike.
When Eric reflects back on what he has done to remake a struggling seafood operation into a first-class marina and resort, he says it took “perseverance, determination, and guts.” But he smiles when he says it because he is proud of the results. Asked what the future holds, Eric says he has no plans but to “keep on doing what he’s doing to make it better and better.”

For complete information about El Milagro Beach Hotel and Marina, including the availability of accommodations, please visit elmilagrobeachhotelandmarina.com or call Eric at 805-698-8165.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

An honest mistake?

Screwed-up Florida voter registration card
My Florida voter registration card arrived in the mail yesterday, just two and a half weeks after Nan and I went to the Department of Motor Vehicles to get our Florida drivers' licenses. Not too bad, I thought, until I opened the envelope and looked at its contents. Under Party Affiliation, my new card read, "Republican Party of Florida". I couldn't believe it. I didn't know whether to be angry or embarrassed.

When the DMV clerk asked me if I wanted to register to vote and if I wanted to declare a party affiliation, I clearly said, "Yes," and "Democrat." How could she have screwed up such a simple response? Oh wait, this was the same clerk who, after being presented with four official identification documents, misspelled my name as "Lighty" on my finished driver's license, requiring that she start over from the beginning with the entire half-hour licensing procedure, including payment processing.

Was it a matter of innocent incompetence, or was something more insidious at play? Florida is one of the states that is going to be demographically Democratic into the foreseeable future despite the best efforts of Republican Governor Rick Scott and his cronies, who are doing everything they can to reduce Democratic voter turn-out by minorities and the poor. Are they also bolstering their reported Republican ranks by switching party affiliations on new voter registrations?

12/9 UPDATE: I forgot to mention that I filled out and mailed the online form to change my party affiliation to the Florida Democratic Party the very next day. You betcha!

Monday, December 2, 2013

A sailor's review of "All is Lost"

To someone who has never sailed, the movie "All is Lost" is what it is intended to be, a harrowing tale of a lone sailor's struggle for survival at sea. To an experienced sailor, it becomes much more. Instead of trusting that Robert Redford's character, "Our Man", knows what he is doing and is mostly a victim of circumstance, a sailor puts himself in the character's person and asks, what would I do? The answer is, not exactly what he did.

There are many scenes in the film that had me squirming, starting from the very beginning when the man is awakened by water sloshing in his boat. He gets up to find that he has collided with a floating shipping container and that there is a large hole in the hull at the waterline on the starboard beam. Wouldn't the crash itself have woken him up? He sets about freeing the boat from the container by attaching a sea anchor to a corner with a methodically tied bowline and then returns to retrieve it, colliding hard with the container a second time, though with the prow this time, which is where I would have expected the first collision to have been if the boat had been underway at the time. Free from the container, the man smartly puts his boat in a starboard reach to keep the hole above water while he undertakes an elaborate fiberglass repair. Who carries a complete fiberglass repair kit on board? I would have fashioned a large patch out of a tarp or a spare sail and held it in place with lines and the pressure of the water while I bailed and headed for the nearest port.

Somehow, the man has lost his bilge pump handle, so he carefully crafts a replacement from a mop handle instead of reaching for a bucket. He dries out his water-logged radio and manages to get it working long enough to issue an outdated S.O.S., instead of a more modern Mayday, but there is no response, only the crackling sound of a distant broadcast in a foreign language.

The man resumes what we can only believe is his original heading, with his flimsy fiberglass patch in place, testing if it will hold by changing tack. But a moderate storm is brewing on the horizon, and soon he is testing the patch for real, but not before he takes the time for a quick shave. The patch holds, which is good because he leaves the companionway wide open to rain and waves while he struggles to put up a storm jib. The storm quickly abates, and the man sets about restoring order on his boat and catching up on his sleep.

A second, much more severe storm soon arrives. The man is overwhelmed by waves crashing into the cockpit and swept overboard, but he is wearing a harness and tether, and manages to climb back aboard. He goes below, leaving the boat to fend for itself. The boat rolls, breaking the mast, which punches a hole in the deck. The man struggles up to the deck and cuts the rig free with a miraculous single snip. He goes back below, but a big wave pitches him headfirst into the base of the mast and knocks him unconscious.

When he comes to, he has a bad gash on his forehead and his boat is slowly sinking. He treats the wound with peroxide and butterfly bandages, and deploys his life raft. He leaves it secured to the stern rail of his boat as he climbs aboard and again loses consciousness. When he comes to this time, he looks out to see that his boat is lying very low in the water and will soon sink. He pulls himself back and climbs aboard. Down below, he retrieves his sextant, still in its original packaging. The boat lurches and creaks, announcing its imminent demise. The man manages to get back into the life raft and cut the line before his boat finally disappears beneath the surface.

I watched the sinking scene in stunned disbelief. The man had patched the one hole, and the other was above the waterline, so any water entering the boat would be from wave action. It would have taken a herculean effort, but the man could have stayed aboard, after deploying the life raft as a safety measure, and bailed out enough water to keep the boat from sinking. Most sailors I know would much rather take their chances in a capsized boat than in a life raft.

At this point, the movie becomes more of a survival tale than a sailing story, and the man continues to make mistakes, though I will not spoil how it ends except to say that many questions go unanswered. What was the man's background? What was he doing alone in the middle of the Indian Ocean in a small sailboat? Where was he sailing from, and where was he heading? Answers to these questions would have helped to humanize the man and make us feel greater compassion for him. Instead, we're left to watch him, somewhat indifferently, as he struggles against nature and his own bad decisions.


Sunday, November 17, 2013

Sailing a Serious Ocean

Sailing a Serious Ocean: Sailboats, Storms, Stories, and Lessons Learned from 30 Years at Sea by John KretschmerThis past Wednesday evening, Nan and I went down to the Coconut Grove Sailing Club for a lecture and book signing by our friend John Kretschmer. His new book, Sailing a Serious Ocean: Sailboats, Storms, Stories, and Lessons Learned from 30 Years at Sea, came out at the end of October, and this event was the kick-off of his far-flung book tour.

There was a great turn-out by club members and the general public to hear John talk about the book and his long history in sailing, and then to buy a copy for him to sign. I wanted to get three copies but then others would have missed out on the limited supply, so I settled for one and had John sign it for my father, who had so enjoyed one of John's earlier books, At the Mercy of the Sea: The True Story of Three Sailors in a Caribbean Hurricane.

John Kretschmer speaking about his new book at the Coconut Grove Sailing Club
I downloaded John's new book to my Kindle almost as soon as it was available and finished reading it a few days later. It's packed with excellent information about everything from choosing the proper ocean-going sailboat to deciding the best tactics for different storm conditions. Here's the Amazon review I wrote:
I have known John Kretschmer since 2007 and sailed with him on four of his trips, including the Odyssey trip he details in this book. Sailing with John is an opportunity for sailors looking to broaden their horizons to mitigate the inherent danger. His steady demeanor and many years of offshore experience turn potentially terrifying storms into exciting learning experiences. When conditions are calmer, there is time for talk, and John is happy to share his hard-earned advice and recount his incredible sea stories. Reading his new book had me smiling and nodding in recognition. It’s all in there, all that John has learned over the course of his sailing career, what worked and what didn't, illustrated through real-life examples. This book is one that every active or armchair sailor will want to read and keep for reference.
It was good to see John and his wife Tadji, if only briefly. We chatted before the lecture and he mentioned that he would be home in Fort Lauderdale until he leaves in early January to sail his boat Quetzal from the Canary Islands to Antigua. He said the four of us should plan on getting together for dinner sometime before then.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Miami

Driving past our new apartment building in Coconut Grove
It took five long days of low-speed, low-mileage driving, but we did finally make it to Miami. The photo shows us on the evening of our arrival, passing our new Coconut Grove apartment building on our way to U-Haul to get the car taken off the trailer.

That was almost four weeks ago. Since then, we have settled in to our tiny new apartment, I have started my new job, and we have picked up Scout from Monica and Vicky's care. They looked after him in Bentonville while we finished our relocation, which was especially helpful because we were unable to move in to our apartment right away, due to a delay in the homeowner board's approval process, and needed to stay in the pet-free hotel next door for three nights.

Mobile, Alabama is halfway between here and Bentonville. Last weekend, Nan and I drove there to meet Monica and Vicky for Scout's hand-off. He was sporting a cool new puppy cut and was overjoyed to see us. After all that has happened in the last seven months, he must be feeling more than a little confused and insecure.

The three of us have spent the past week establishing new routines to get Scout comfortable in his new surroundings. There are two dog parks within walking distance, and they are always full of dog buddies to meet and romp with. Nan takes Scout on walks both morning and evening that usually have the closer dog park as the turnaround point. I join them for the evening walk if I get home from work in time.

Together, we are settling in to our new life here in Miami. It feels at times like starting over, but I know that it's really just another step in our long journey. We're already looking ahead to sailing the boat up here from Mexico next spring.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Miami or bust!

Loaded up and ready to go at the U-Haul place in Grand Junction
Nan and Scout and I are back at Monica and Vicky's home in Bentonville, Arkansas. Since we were here in late August to pick up Scout, we have spent time in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin and Grand Junction, Colorado.

It wasn't until the Wednesday after Gene and Debbie's September 14 wedding that I learned which job I would be offered in Miami. We packed up the car the following Monday, thanked my parents for their generous hospitality, and drove west to arrange for the big move. Along the way, we secured an apartment in Coconut Grove, between my new workplace and Biscayne Bay. It's a one bedroom/one bath unit, without much closet space, so we are leaving almost half of our stuff in storage in Grand Junction for now.

Our friends and neighbors, Rich and Diane, hosted us while we were in the old neighborhood. It was hard to believe we had been gone almost six months. Scout went crazy when he realized where we were and quickly renewed his friendship with their schnauzer Kola. The two of them promptly ran up to our old patch of lawn for a celebratory pee.

We spent our week in Grand Junction finalizing the job offer, putting up our old house for sale, reserving a U-Haul and trailer, figuring out what to take and getting it packed, and socializing with old friends. By this past Wednesday evening, we were ready to go, with all of our stuff loaded into the truck, our SUV loaded onto the trailer, and our bikes secured to a rack on the back. With the three of us squeezed into the truck's cab, we probably looked like the Beverly Hillbillies as we drove away on Thursday morning.

We are taking a break from driving today after fighting the wind across Kansas yesterday, ahead of the storm that dumped snow across the mountains and Midwest. We awoke early this morning to thunderstorms, and it has continued to rain steadily all morning. Starting tomorrow, we will continue east but stay north of Tropical Storm Karen's landfall before dropping south through Atlanta, Lake City, and Orlando on our way to Miami. Given our U-Haul rig's limited speed, it will take us three full days of driving to get there. More from the road...

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Gene and Debbie's Wedding

Debbie and Gene at their wedding reception at the Oconomowoc Community Center overlooking Lac La Belle
It's a love story forty-three years in the making. My friends Gene and Debbie have known each other since we were all seventh-graders together at Longfellow Junior High School. They went their separate ways after graduation from Wauwatosa East High School, attended different colleges, established careers and families over a thousand miles apart, and lived their grown-up lives. But they stayed in touch over the years, at first through class reunions and later through family visits. Eventually, they found themselves single again, and then they found each other. Yesterday, they were married.

Dad and Mom at Gene and Debbie's wedding reception
My parents and I attended the wedding ceremony and reception, along with almost two hundred friends and family members, including eight high school classmates. For me, it was a mini-reunion, a chance to talk with people I have known almost all my life but have not seen in many years. We may not have been close in high school, but shared past experience makes us close now. We were so happy just to be with one another that we ended the night promising to meet again, in 2016 for what will be our fortieth class reunion. And who better to host the event than our newly wedded classmates, at their beautiful home on Lac La Belle? Hey, you two, we know you're on your honeymoon, but are you listening? Let's make it happen!

Congratulations and best wishes to Gene and Debbie as they begin their married life together!

Monday, September 2, 2013

Time to go

Whispering Jesse in wet storage, with bimini and dodger removed, at Marina del Sol
Nan and I are no longer in Isla Mujeres. Our grand plan to sail there from Savannah and live there for at least a year was mostly successful, with two major exceptions: our dog Scout was not with us, and I was not earning an income.

We knew that Scout would not do well being on a sailboat in rough seas for several days without any prior experience, so we left him in the care of Nan's sister Monica in Arkansas, with the idea of flying him down to Mexico at a later date. By the time we were settled in at El Milagro Marina, in early June, the temperatures were already above the airlines' eighty-degree limit for transporting pets. It was just as well, it turns out, as we couldn't imagine Scout tolerating the heat and humidity of Mexico during the summer months no matter how much we missed him. Coupled with the mosquitoes and sand gnats, we could barely tolerate it ourselves. After my return from San Diego in early July, we gave up sleeping on our overheated boat and checked in to a cheap room at the marina, mostly for the air conditioning. The boat's air conditioning was not up to the task of cooling the entire boat to a comfortable level, and we were afraid the monthly electricity bills would be in the hundreds of dollars.

When I left my previous employer, it was with the understanding that I would work for them remotely as a contractor on special projects. That hasn't happened. And Mexico has proven to have a higher cost of living than we anticipated. We quickly realized that we would run out of money before we could tap into our retirement savings, especially if we kept having repair issues with the boat. We would either need to cut back drastically on spending by anchoring out in the bay (see "A night at anchor") and cutting back on non-essential expenses, or I would need to find a new job. I started looking at U.S.-based employment opportunities back in mid-June, less than a month after our arrival. Nan and I both knew that getting a job would mean the end of our sojourn in Mexico, but we were ready to go. We realized that it is one thing to vacation in a place and quite another thing to live there. Vacations end, usually without incident, but life goes on, and the problems that develop along the way need to be solved, which can be extremely difficult in a foreign country with a different language.

Reunited with Scout at Monica and Vicky's in Bentonville, Arkansas
Now it is more than two months later. I am still looking for a job, but I think I may have found one. I should know for sure later this week. In anticipation, about two weeks ago, Nan and I prepared the boat for long-term wet storage and moved it to a marina in the lagoon, Marina del Sol, where it will be more safe from hurricanes. We packed up our clothing and anything else we could reasonably take with us. And we flew to Miami, where I was scheduled for interviews with two potential employers. From there, we drove a rental car up to Savannah to pick up our car from storage at my parents' home, and then we drove out to Bentonville, Arkansas, to be reunited with Scout. He met us excitedly at the car before we could even get out, and he has been following me everywhere since then.

From here, depending on what happens with a job offer, we will either drive out to Grand Junction to pack up for a move or drive up to Wisconsin to visit family and attend two weddings. Either way, it seems almost certain that the three of us will be moving to the Miami area within a few weeks. In the few days we were there, we explored enough to get a feel for the city and to know we could be happy there. A fresh start in a very different place. Maybe we could sail the boat up there and keep it at a local marina for weekend sailing trips. There are so many possibilities.

In thinking about it, the timing of our journey to Mexico was not optimal. If we had waited until after hurricane season ends in late November, or after hurricane season ends next year or the year after that, things would have turned out differently. It would have been much cooler, Scout would have joined us right away, and we would have had more money set aside. We will keep all this in mind for the future, when we get another chance to live our dream.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Snorkeling with whale sharks

Moses looking like Superman on the bow of Lizardo, with Miguel at the wheel
Whale shark tours have become a huge business in Isla Mujeres in the last five or so years. It used to be that tourists cleared out in May when the rainy season started, but then someone noticed that whale sharks were migrating north through the Yucatan Channel during the summer months. Now there is no noticeable decline in tourism until the whale sharks move on near the end of August, before what the local people call “septihambre” (hungry September).

Nan and Kim at the bow of Lizardo as we pass Playa Norte
Longtime friends of ours on the island have taken advantage of this new opportunity. Ariel, who has been conducting snorkeling and fishing trips for many years, now does mostly whale shark tours from June through August. Wbeymar (pronounced “Way-mer”), who owns Brisas Grill, where our good friend Juan Gomez works, now has a fleet of two whale shark tour boats, with plans to add another one next season. Both have been asking us during summer visits to go on their tours with them, but we never have, up until last week Wednesday, that is.

What a whale shark looks like from above water. Note the huge head!
We were hearing reports from guests at El Milagro Marina that the number of whale sharks out in the viewing area, which is treated as a national park by Mexico, was diminishing, so we decided we had better go before it was too late. Wbeymar had told us he would give us a no-commission deal of 850 pesos ($70) each, which was better than Ariel’s offer, even with his promise to limit the number of people to just four in order to increase in-water time, so we went with Wbeymar.

Nan and I showed up at Brisas Grill at 7:30 that morning, thinking the tour would be leaving at 8:00 and that we would have time to get some coffee and breakfast. Juan and his co-worker Victor were just setting up tables and chairs. After a half-hour, Nan gave up waiting for coffee and went to the Oxxo (Mexico’s version of 7-Eleven) across the street for a cup. I toyed with the underwater camera our friend Scott from El Milagro Marina had lent me. Soon, Wbeymar’s first tour boat, Lizardo, arrived at the pier behind the restaurant. Wbeymar himself showed up a little while later and told us the tours leave at 8:30, not 8:00. Juan served us coffee, orange juice and slices of a breakfast cake. Other groups started to filter in. We counted about twenty by 8:30. We hoped we wouldn’t all be packed into a single boat, but then Ana Carina, Wbeymar’s second tour boat, arrived at the pier. Moses, the tour leader, broke us up into two groups of ten each and led us to the boats. I urged Nan to take a seat near the bow of our designated boat, Lizardo, to minimize the spray that would result from blasting through the waves at high speed.

Up close and personal with a feeding whale shark. Note the tiny eye and ear.
The combination of the north-flowing current and the easterly winds made for a very rough one-hour ride out to where the whale sharks were feeding, about twenty miles northeast of Isla Mujeres. People near the back of the boat were drenched by the time we spotted the cluster of at least fifty other boats bobbing around a large school of whale sharks and slowed to join them. In between the boats were groups of snorkelers and some really large dorsal and tail fins. A whale shark coasted under the bow of our boat, just below the surface, its head at least three feet across. Nan and I looked at each other and mouthed, “Wow!” I couldn’t wait to jump in and see one up close. Nan was not so sure.

Moses explained that park rules required us to wear standard orange life preservers and to let only two people into the water at a time, plus a guide. He went over the side in his mask, snorkel, and fins, and beckoned the first two people, a couple, to join him. The boyfriend went in first and then the girlfriend jumped in practically on top of a passing whale shark. Those of us watching from the boat were alarmed for her safety, but we could hear her laughing through her snorkel. Brave girl!

A whale shark glides past. Watch out for that tail!
Nan decided to sit out the first round, so I was paired up with Kim, a pediatrician and part-time Isla Mujeres resident. When it was our turn, we paddled around with Moses for a while without seeing anything, until shouts of excitement nearby alerted us. I put my head underwater and looked in the direction of the shouts. A huge open mouth was coming right at me. I didn't have time to raise the camera before swimming out of the way, but I was able to keep up with the whale shark, as it glided slowly along straining the water for plankton, and take a few photos before I tired out. We had been told not to touch the whale sharks, but it took an effort to stay out of their way and not get whacked by their enormous tails as they glided past, seemingly oblivious to the many people swimming in their presence.

A whale shark in a sea of plankton and bubbles. Note the hitchhiker above the fin.
Nan decided not to let the opportunity pass and joined me for the second dive. We didn't see as many whale sharks as I had seen on the first dive, but she was still impressed. I could tell by how wide her eyes were behind her dive mask. Manta rays, which feed on the same plankton, had been reported in the area, some even leaping high out of the water, but we did not see any that day--our excuse to return someday for a second tour.

The trip back to the island was much smoother, but the spray was more intense. We were all soaking wet, so it didn't matter. Miguel, our boat captain, stopped outside the reef at Anvil Rock to let us snorkel for a while. The water was too rough for Nan but I dove in to see what was there. From twenty feet above, the bottom didn't look like much, just the usual green-tinted rocks and corals, but when I did a surface dive and went to the bottom, everything changed. Colorful fan coral, staghorn coral, and every other coral type covered the rocks, and striped sergeant major fish and lavender-colored angel fish swam in and out of every crevice. Now it was my eyes that were wide. I wished I had remembered the camera. A few more deep surface dives and I was too tired to hold my breath anymore.

A whale shark swimming with a pair of remoras beneath itMiguel pulled the boat around to the shallow, sandy-bottomed waters of Playa Norte and anchored. Many of the other whale shark tour boats were already there, and the party had begun. Loud music, skimpy bikinis, and bottled beer were everywhere. Moses and Miguel served up fresh-made shrimp ceviche and cold beer. Nan ate a plate of ceviche and tortilla chips, and then waded through the water to shore, her pack over her head, for her afternoon Spanish lesson downtown. I stayed with the boat for the ride back to our starting point at Brisas Grill, happy that we had finally taken a whale shark tour.

If you've never done it and you happen to be in the western Caribbean during the summer months, you owe it to yourself to snorkel with these amazing creatures, earth's largest fish, before their migration route changes and you miss the chance.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Sailing to Isla Contoy

Karen and Nan in the cockpit of Ati, an Amel Super Maramu 54-foot ketch
On Saturday morning, our friends Scott and Diane, who own Ati, the Amel Super Maramu 54-foot ketch in the slip next to ours at El Milagro Marina, invited us to go sailing with them. Charlie and Karen, new arrivals who own Leap, a Pearson 386 sloop anchored out in the bay, were also invited. I had been out kayaking in the bay earlier in the day and the wind was blowing hard out of the southeast following a recent tropical storm, so I knew it would be a good day for a sail. But by the time we finally got organized to go, it was 2:00 in the afternoon and the wind had mostly died.

Charlie and Scott at the bow of Ati before the sails were deployed
Nan and I have been sailing a few times in the area between Isla Mujeres and Cancun, and we have sailed around the island once, so we suggested that we all sail to Isla Contoy, located about 15 miles to the north. The island is a national park and bird sanctuary, and Nan and I have been there twice before on organized tours, but it had been at least ten years. We wouldn't be able to make landfall without a permit, which was fine with us because we remember the island as being extremely hot and buggy. It would be enough just to sail in a new direction for a change. It would also be a nice change to be crew on someone else's boat and let them be responsible for everything.

Catching the first wahoo with a pink streamer and hand lineWe slipped the lines and motored out into the bay without a hitch, thanks to the boat's electric bow thruster, which makes tight turns easy. Many other features on the Amel are also electric, like the mainsail mast furling, the anchor windlass, and the sheet winches. Nan and I had to smile as we watched how easily Scott and Diane could deploy their mainsail, simply by turning into the wind and pressing a button, a process that on our boat is almost a three-person job.

Diane at the helm (Note the elaborate whisker pole setup)On an otherwise uneventful seven-hour sail that took us up to a point a few miles east of Isla Contoy and back, there were three incidents of note:

We caught a good-sized wahoo using a hand line. Scott and Charlie had rigged a Rapala-type jointed plug that vibrated the line but didn't catch anything. I took it off and put on a squid-like pink streamer, similar to the yellow one we had had such success with on the passage down from Savannah, and we caught the wahoo less than an hour later. I was ready to put the rig away, but Karen said we should try again. Sure enough, we caught another wahoo a little later, but this poor little fellow was hooked through the top of the head, snagged while checking out the lure from an unsafe distance. It was just a flesh wound, so we released him. When I asked if he would survive, Charlie said, "Hey, sharks need to eat too!"

The sun sets over Isla Blanca as Ati returns to Isla MujeresWe had run up to Isla Contoy using a series of jibes, and it was going to take a series of tacks to return again with the wind blowing out of the southeast. If we wanted to get home before dark, we were going to need to motor. Diane at the helm fired up the engine and it ran smoothly for about fifteen minutes before the alarm sounded, indicating that it was overheated. When Scott lifted the engine room hatch, which doubles as the cockpit floor, and jumped down onto the rubberized perch on top of the engine, he almost burned his feet, and that was a definite first. He and Charlie ran through a list of what the problem could be and finally deduced that the cold water intake strainer was clogged. Charlie cleaned it, Scott reinstalled it, and we were off and running again.

The sun set while we were still several miles offshore, and it was fully dark and close to 8:30 as we approached Anvil Rock, marking the northeast corner of the island. Fortunately, there was a waxing gibbous moon, and the lights onshore were shining brightly. Diane had never sailed at night before but stayed at the helm as I stood next to her, guiding her past Playa Norte and around the northwest corner to the familiar red buoys that mark the entrance channel. Soon we were tied up at El Milagro again and hungrily heading over to Iguana's at Marina Paraiso for Carlos's barbecued ribs special.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

A night at anchor

Whispering Jesse at anchor (right in the center of the photo)
With Whispering Jesse back in commission, Nan and I recently tried something we have wanted to do since we arrived here in Isla Mujeres, Mexico: spend a night at anchor in the bay. Some of the sailors we have met here live on their anchored boats, and we wanted to see what it would be like to be out there with them.

There are areas of the bay that are too shallow for our boat's six-foot draft, but I had scoped out a good, deep location using one of the El Milagro Marina kayaks. On the appointed day, we waited until late afternoon and then loaded up the cooler with food and drinks, tied the dinghy to the boat, and enlisted Felix to assist with the dock lines and anchoring. We motored out of the marina and made a big, sweeping turn around the shallows and into the planned location. I pointed us into the wind, brought the boat to a stop, and yelled up to Felix at the bow to drop the anchor. He got it stuck under the jib's furling mechanism, and I needed to run forward to help him manhandle it overboard while Nan kept us pointing into the wind. The chain promptly ran all the way out,
Nan paddling laps around anchored Whispering Jessealong with about twenty feet of the line spliced to it. The little yellow tape woven into the line indicated sixty feet, which I figured was about the right scope for our ten-foot depth. As the wind slowly pushed us backwards, Felix cleated off the line and I returned to the helm. When the anchor line tightened, we stopped moving backwards, an indication that the anchor was holding, not dragging through the sand and sea grass on the bottom. I put the engine in reverse and gave it some RPMs to make sure the anchor was set. The line straightened and vibrated, but the anchor held. We visually lined up some objects on shore and watched them for a few minutes, just to be absolutely sure we were not moving.

I pulled the swim ladder out of a lazarette and attached it to the boat's rail, then pulled the dinghy around to it. Felix and I climbed in for his ride back to the marina, leaving Nan alone on the boat. As I dropped Felix off at the pier, he assured me that he would be available the next day to help us pull up the anchor and return to the marina. I thanked him and motored back to the boat.

A test for whether we could be comfortable at anchor in the bay for extended periods was to see if we could pick up the marina's wireless Internet signal from out there. We couldn't. We also wanted to see if it was appreciably cooler out there than in the marina. Even with every hatch and portlight open, it wasn't. The cabin thermometer never went below 84 degrees, so Nan and I decided to sleep out in the cockpit instead of roasting inside. In fact, we spent the rest of the afternoon and evening in the cockpit, sipping wine and watching first the boat traffic and then the sunset. Nan served up a tasty chicken and pasta dinner, and before long it was time for bed.

Sunrise over Isla Mujeres from Whispering Jesse at anchor
The rising moon woke us both at about 1:30. Buzzing mosquitoes kept us awake most of the rest of the night. We were both wide awake and drinking coffee before the sun rose to end our restless night. It soon became uncomfortably hot in the cockpit, and we prepared to leave in the dinghy to go get Felix. Back at the marina, looking across the bay at Whispering Jesse swinging at anchor, I thought she looked really good out there, maybe a little vulnerable, but good.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Sailing (finally)

Nazario and Aldo enjoying a day of sailing aboard Whispering Jesse
Nan and I took Nazario and his son Aldo sailing on the Saturday after we returned to El Milagro Marina from the boatyard. There was a brisk ten to fifteen knot breeze blowing from the south, and the sky was filled with puffy cumulus clouds. It was a perfect day to get out on the cool blue waters between Isla Mujeres and Cancun, and a good opportunity to see how Whispering Jesse would perform after the repair work on her skeg, which had kept us from sailing since we arrived here in late May.

We threw off the lines at 10:30, with the idea of sailing all the way around the island. We motored out of the bay, past the two red buoys that mark its entrance channel, and aimed for the distinctive Gran Puerto building over in Puerto Juarez. The water just past where the island's peninsula juts out is shallow and features a sandy bottom, which makes the water appear a brilliant aquamarine, like what you imagine the person who came up with swimming pool paint was trying but failing to achieve.

Once we reached double-digit depth, I turned us south into the wind and we raised the mainsail. Nazario and Aldo both speak very good English, so communication was not an issue. We fell off the wind toward Cancun and unfurled the jib. I had Nazario slide the fairlead aft and then I opened the lifeline gate so we could sheet the jib in tightly. Otherwise, the sheet puts excessive pressure on the lifelines and stanchions. We took a bead on the new hotel over in Cancun's Hotel Zone that looks like it has a hole in it and tightened the sheets for a fast close reach. On a whim, we also unfurled the staysail, for the true cutter (two headsails) effect. At six to seven knots, we were heeling a little beyond comfort, so we slid the traveler leeward to flatten the ride. Nazario and Aldo, who are very experienced with fishing boats but not so much with sailboats, were smiling broadly. They commented that it seemed like we were going much faster than we actually were.

Nan, me and Aldo sailing Whispering Jesse, with Isla Mujeres in the background
There is a large red buoy that marks the southwest corner of the shallow water at Punta Sur, the southern point of Isla Mujeres. We furled the staysail and then tacked when the buoy was off our beam. We were adjusted for our new heading before I realized it would take us another couple of tacks to clear the island's south end. We had been out for over an hour at this point and it was going to take a few more hours to get all the way around, so I asked if we shouldn't maybe think about heading back instead. The others agreed, and we jibed to follow a heading right up the island's beautiful western coast, with its many beaches and impressive villas.

Coming back into the bay, the boat traffic was intense, causing greater wave action than we had experienced outside it. We furled the jib, dropped the mainsail, and followed the red buoys back in. As we approached El Milagro Marina, we dodged other boats while looking for an opportunity to turn to starboard in order to set up for a reverse entry and a stern-to tie-up. Soon we were standing on the pier in the hot sun drinking ice-cold Modelos. When Nan asked him what he thought of the experience, Aldo said with a smile, "Now I want a sailboat."

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Touch-ups and bottom paint

Roberto's assistant buffs the touch-up paint on Whispering Jesse's stern
Last Thursday afternoon when we stopped at the boatyard, there were all kinds of work going on. Roberto was finishing up the skeg repair, his assistant was buffing out the touch-up paint on the cosmetic gelcoat repairs, and the boatyard men were applying the first coat of bottom paint to the hull. All assured us that the boat would be ready to go the next morning.

To be certain they hadn't missed anything, Nan and I walked slowly around the boat, looking closely at every surface. The first thing we noticed was that the white and blue paint that had looked like a near-perfect match when it was wet at the paint store was not so perfect when it dried. The white was a little too yellow, and the blue was a little too bright. From a distance you couldn't tell, but up close the margins were easy to distinguish. For what we paid, I can't complain. I would much rather look at slightly mismatched paint than at the scars where our Aries windvane was.

Whispering Jesse getting bottom paint--almost ready to go!
Early Friday morning, Nan and I walked to the boatyard instead of riding our folding bikes. Nazario met us there shortly afterward. The boat was already up in the lift when we arrived. The boatyard men were cleaning up the bottom of the keel before painting it and the patches where the supports were. When they were finished, the boat looked almost brand new, buffed and shiny above the waterline and deep black below.

A ladder was placed against the rail, and Nazario and I climbed aboard for the slow ride over to the haul-out basin. We used the time to rig up fenders and dock lines. Once we were afloat and the lifting straps were released, we tossed the lines and pulled the boat over to pick up Nan. I fired up the engine and backed us out into the channel, put the transmission into forward, and motored toward El Milagro Marina. Whispering Jesse felt good and right again.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Fiberglass repair and more

Skeg and shell piece after sanding by Roberto
Roberto got right to work the next morning, Friday, arriving at the boatyard with a milk crate full of tools. Nan and I were waiting there to give him the second 1,000 pesos he had requested as a deposit. He thanked us and pulled out his rotary sander. We told him we would return later to see how it was going and pedaled away on our folding bikes.

When we returned, Roberto was at the entrance gate signing out with the security guard. He walked with us back to the boat and showed us how he had cleaned up all the ragged edges on the skeg shells and on the skeg itself. He told us he would be back on Saturday to begin the fiberglassing.

Roberto inserting permanent joining rods to hold shells to skeg
The photos show the progression of Roberto's fiberglass work on the skeg over the next few days. While we were at it, we also contracted with him to repair and paint the scars left by the removal of our old Aries windvane, as well as numerous hull scratches from past docking mishaps, for an additional 3,000 pesos.

This extra work required a trip over to Cancun the following Monday to visit a few different marine paint stores, but first we met Nazario at Nauticos Cancun, a marine supply store, to buy new zincs for the hull and propeller shaft. While we were
Fiberglass completed and three joining rods in place
there, I noticed that a gallon of Pettit bottom paint was priced at 4,350 pesos. I did the conversion, and it worked out to $362.00! Nazario said it was so expensive because it was so heavy to ship from the United States. (A gallon of water weighs a little over eight pounds, but a gallon of bottom paint weighs at least twice that because of all the growth-inhibiting metals it contains.) We had worked out the details with the boatyard to have them paint the bottom after Roberto finished, but I didn't expect the necessary three gallons to cost over a thousand dollars. Nazario suggested that we use Mexican bottom paint instead and drove us over to Nervion Pinturas, which seemed an appropriate name as the fumes inside the store were enough to cause nerve damage.

Finished sanding and ready for primer before bottom paint
We took three gallons of black Nervion bottom paint to the counter, along with three liters of solvent. Then Nazario went back and forth with the paint-mixing man in rapid Spanish to see about getting quarter-liters of touch-up paint, matched as closely as possible to the Awl Grip paint sample sheet I had brought along. Whispering Jesse's "Snow White" and "Royal Blue" were not easy matches, and it took several minutes for the man to mix close colors. Nan and I were getting headaches from the paint fumes by then and wondering why the large ventilation hood above the counter was not running at full blast.

Nazario and Nan under the ventilation hood at Nervion Pinturas
With a trunk full of very heavy paint, Nazario drove us to the ferry dock for the ride back to Isla Mujeres. We thanked him profusely for his help and offered him money to at least pay for his gas, but he would not take it. He is a very good man and we appreciate him tremendously.