The house we had lived in for almost four years in Playa del Carmen, Mexico was being packed up. The movers and their truck were in and out over several days with multiple trips to our new house. We were moving into a place that made more sense for storing our stuff during a year of travel.
It was as hot as it gets in May in the Caribbean.
While trying to move and plan for our sail to Rio Dulce, work was at its capacity with Katy organizing the decor for a large handful of weddings her company would be decorating during the month we would be sailing.
I was busy running deliveries and working a convention for my beer distribution company and managing all of the day to day of our online marketing company.
Complicating the departure, my back had been blown out for a month, two weeks of which I was completely bed ridden, one day collapsing six times straight to the ground while trying to stand or walk in what I can recall as some of the most intense pain of my life.
I have broken every limb on my body, most multiple times. I have broken my jaw, compound fractured my forearm 90 degrees in half, had plates and screws, broken ankles, a scaphoid cracked to the point of jeopardizing the movement of my hand for the rest of my life, wrists, fingers, multiple concussions… and now this, if not the top of the list, was as close as it gets to top pain.
I’m 33 and falling apart.
Years of my youth spent abusing my body jumping off of things in the mountains are finally catching up, so now at 33 I spent six weeks with a chiropractor hoping to meet passable criteria in his books for walking... or, captaining a boat.
Setbacks and obligations were doing their job, but our sailing trip through Belize to Guatemala was coming up and no matter what we would be pointing that bow south.
Our two friends, Tom and Mel had flown from Vancouver for the trip and there was a slight chance the severity of my back issues could sideline the sail.
I had spent as much time as possible between work studying Freya Rauscher's "Belize and Mexico's Caribbean Coast" guide book and plotting our routes.
The weather was looking perfect for our trip.
PredictWind's forecast (our forecasting service of choice), in agreement with seasonal pilot charts, was showing us on a beam reach the entire sail with 10-15kt winds directly from the east, occasionally backing to the ENE with 3 foot seas. Hard to find a better window that so perfectly coincides with your first choice departure dates.
Then, a day or two before Tom and Mel arrived for the trip, another guest of ours had flushed some pretty sturdy paper towels down our marine head and completely blocked off the toilet. An amenity some may consider a necessity for two weeks at sea between a crew of four aboard.
I'll take the blame on this for not saying, "If you didn't eat it, don't flush it." — a sign which is now being printed and put in the bathroom.
To make short of the long, detailed, five day story of going up and down between the marina and town to get other parts, hundreds of dollars spent, hacksawing hoses, human waste all over myself, Tom, and our other friend Mack, three or four failed solutions and the final rebuilding of our entire plumbing discharge system, and actually diving in the water to get at the thru-hull from the outside, no hose attached and the seacock open, stuffing a metal rod through to push the paper back into the boat from the clogged valve… we were good to go.
Nothing will show you who your true friends are like those who volunteer for some marine plumbing of someone else’s shit.
A few days behind already, and all of a sudden our absolutely perfect weather window was narrowing. The intended departure date was put on hold from May 18th, 19th, to the 20th, 21st, then finally no matter what we had to beat the weather by departing on the 22nd at the latest. The date of our two year wedding anniversary.
Get us the hell out of dodge and into that ocean.
Aiming to depart at first light on May 22nd, we were on a clock to get south to the San Pedro cut in Belize before the forecasted 9 foot seas and 25kt winds showed up, first spending one night anchored in a giant bay along south eastern Mexico's coastline, Bahía de la Ascensión.
The San Pedro cut is a narrow, natural gap in between two points along the reef where you can come in from the sea to protected waters. The San Pedro cut is well known for being tight, unmarked, difficult and unadvisable to enter in rough seas.
If you are not familiar with Belize, it has to be one of the most beautiful Caribbean cruising grounds around. You can sail for days in shallow, crystal clear waters without seeing another soul, swimming while anchored at uninhabited islands, barbecues and bonfires on beaches, and still see no one.
But, it is also one of the most dangerous.
Belize is home to the largest barrier reef in the western hemisphere and the second largest in the entire world. This translates to the widest variety of species of fish in the world, and a sometimes career ending reef that can rip your hull to pieces. Possibly why many insurance policies for boats say, "Excluding Belize" in the fine print.
What happens when you run aground on this natural wonder or any of the countless coral heads below? About $15,000 USD in fines per square meter of damaged reef. In the last year or so we have heard of several captains being jailed and/or fined six figures USD for running aground on the reef here.
Sometimes after running aground, crews will actually abandon ship and jump on a plane to get out of the country to avoid these fines.
Do not run aground on the reef in Belize. Plan your route, then plan it again.
Beware of heavy weather, be smart, use your bearings, match your waypoints up, keep your eyes handy, read the guidebooks and you just might have a perfect week of sailing.
If we were to arrive before the heavy weather, once in front of San Pedro we could easily aim west towards our entry waypoint, zag north once the cut was abeam and coast inside the reef through the notoriously narrow and unmarked cut (it has one yellow buoy to port when tacking 355T that may or may not drag).
If we arrive after the weather, we'll have to skip northern Belize altogether, which was a big part of the trip for us. Instead we'll continue south, chopping along in heavier seas for an extra seven hours, arriving at the main shipping channel to Belize City in the dark. Ain’t nobody got time for that.
After I spent the final day with the boat performing any maintenance or pre-departure tasks, the rest of the crew ran provision detail at the local Chedraui store. Beer, plenty. Vodka, rum, yes please. Food, probably!
Tom, Mel and I all slept on the boat on May 21st, ready to untie the lines at first light on the 22nd. Katy? She continued to work, driving up the highway at 3am to Playa for some last minute wedding business, then back down to the boat with no sleep where I would meet her at the car at god knows what dark hour.
She’ll sleep instantly after we’ve left the marina channel no doubt.
The 10 hour sail from Puerto Aventuras to Bahía de la Ascensión was mostly trouble free. We pulled out of the marina, set the sails and turned south. Edward Blair calmly coasted in relatively fresh winds but easy seas along the Caribbean beaches and past the Tulum Ruins.
An ounce of trouble showed up before turning into the bay where we would anchor for the night. We turned the engine on to prepare for a shallow route to Cayo Culebra, south of Punta Allen in Bahia de la Ascension.
The seas were a bit rough before sunset and kicked up sediment from the bottom of the fuel tank which clogged our engine just as we had decided to douse the sails for the day, on our last stretch to the anchorage.
It is a well known fact that your engine will quit only when you have taken your sails down.
As the engine choked out in 10 feet of water, with reef to the left and right, the crew did well and raised the main in a heartbeat to keep our momentum going. We sailed in on a run towards Culebra, banked to port and dropped anchor just in time for the most refreshing sunset swim, which was also the first official sign of relaxation in our lives for an unaccounted for period of time.
Work was stuck back on land at home in Mexico where it belonged. Cell phones would not work and the Internet had not been invented on Cayo Culebra at this point in history.
All that mattered were the swimsuits, the anchor, the ocean and some drinks between the four of us by oil lamp in the cockpit.
All the complications in the world ended in a declarative manner: Day one, complete.
The next morning we will weigh anchor and head on the 24 hour sail to San Pedro.
Next up: Ascension to San Pedro.
Waypoints & Details
Puerto Aventuras to Bahía de la Ascensión
Here is the section for would-be travellers to the region. Need waypoints? Want to see how charts compare? Read on...
In every post along our Route to Rio series, we will include what we can in the way of practical information in addition to the journey's account. Below is a downloadable .GPX file that will provide you with a digital route and waypoints for exiting Puerto Aventuras and heading safely into Bahía de la Ascensión.
You should be reminded to grab a copy of Freya Rauscher's book for the region, titled, "Cruising Guide to Belize and Mexico's Caribbean Coast, Including Guatemala's Rio Dulce," and understand that all of the waypoints provided are not gospel, but simply guides to help you along the way.
Translation: Pay attention to your surroundings in real time, not just a chart plotter. If you run aground, or worse, don't come calling.
The Yucatan Current
When sailing south along the Yuctan coastline, hug the shore as close as you can while staying in depths around 60-120 feet. You don't want to come in too close to shore, because there are plenty of unmarked reefs, but heading too far offshore and you'll be fighting the current.
The Yucatan Current is a heavy current that runs from south to north, through the Yucatan Channel between Cuba and Mexico up to the Gulf. It can vary in speed from 1kt to 5kts, depending on season and where in the current you find yourself.
If you know much about the Gulf Stream, it's the exact same current, just further south running north at this point before it bends east, north of Cuba.
When sailing south towards Belize from Mexico you will know when you are far enough off shore to hit it. The swells will be noticeably larger on most days and almost all days your boat will begin to slow down as you work against the current.
Depending on the day's wind direction and speed, sometimes you can physically see it without even trying to spot currents. If pointing south, to starboard you will have calm waters and a coastline. Directly to port, large swell and whitecaps. Other days the visual clues aren't so obvious, so you have to feel the boat.
Staying closer to shore when heading south is the way to go. A bonus to staying around the shelf before the current is it makes for great fishing and the reason sport fisherman from all over the world fly here, so put your rod in the water. Within five minutes of setting ours up we had a sailfish biting. He got away to fight another day.
Notes on Charts during Route to the Rio...
We keep paper charts for all our routes, and many old salts will tell you that's all you should truly rely on. The problem with that in this region is, the paper charts don't really have any large scale versions. You cannot navigate the cuts, the passages, the rocky and coral filled coastlines with the small scale wonders that are currently available.
This doesn't mean bank only on digital, but you will find them to be more helpful than the paper so long as your electrical is in ship shape. We have both Navionics charts to consult, Garmin Blue Charts, paper, and hand held GPS to confirm what our boat's built in GPS is saying. When joyriding along some of the most dangerous reefs you'll find in the Caribbean (see: Most companies won't even insure you for Belizean cruising), three words you should remember: Redundancy, redundancy, redundancy.
Garmin vs. Navionics
Coming into the bay, Garmin wins for chart accuracy, depths and even showing channel lines. However, winning in visual representations for this region doesn't mean much.
Don't use either charts religiously, just rely on your own visual assessment combined with the waypoints and description provided by Rauscher.
See the same position screen grab below, Navionics on the left, Garmin's Blue Charts on the right.
Weather & Pilot Charts
You can always download the pilot charts for any time of year and location by visiting the National Geospatial-Inteligence Agency's Atlas of Pilot Charts page. The above image is a sample of our region during May.
For weather, we use a variety of services but primarily PredictWind's subscription service. Check out their site for features and details.
For GRIB files, we send an email request to firstname.lastname@example.org to receive those. If you're unfamiliar with Saildocs, there's a how-to page for getting your weather files sent directly to your inbox while at sea or shore. Many chart plotter applications can request them for you as well and display them as an overlay on top of your charts.
If you don't have a chartplotter application on your computer, tablet, phone or anywhere to display the GRIB files, you should look into getting one. OpenCPN is an open source, free solution.