Guatemala to Florida

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The Rio Dulce
Guatemala to Florida
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Isla Mujeres, Mexico Cancun, Mexico
  Leaving Guatemala

11 November 2008



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A beautiful trip down the Rio Dulce on Tuesday 11th November, in much sunnier conditions than when we arrived. A stop at Livingston at the mouth of the river is required to clear out of Guatemala.

All the cruisers use the services of an agent called Raul in Livingston. He's a great guy and very efficient. If copies of all documents are emailed to him before you arrive, most of the work is done ahead of time. We reached Livingston around 1030 and called Raul on channel 16 as we anchored. (Our documents were thought to be complicated this time as we had arrived as Dulcinea, but were leaving as Dreaming On). Raul had dealt with it all and just needed us and our passports at his office for 30 minutes to complete the formalities.

Left Livingston around 1pm and navigated across the shallow 5’ bar at the mouth of the river, out into the Gulf of Honduras heading ENE to clear south of the Sapodilla Cays, marking the southernmost tip of the Belize barrier reef and into deep ocean.

Once clear of the Sapodillas we turned NNE heading up the coast of Belize and Mexico towards the Yucatan Channel.

Made slow time initially heading into NE winds for the first 12 hours or so. We had no intention of pushing Dreaming On or ourselves too hard as we are still new to the boat and there are many unknowns. By Wednesday, we had light and variable winds, not enough to keep the sails full, so motored on one engine at around 6 knots.

Not all the electronics we had installed were correctly configured but we had enough for a safe passage. The AIS, (Automatic Identification System) is magic. An AIS transceiver is mandatory on all boats/ships over 300 tons. The unit transmits the ship's unique MMSI ID number, position, name, speed, course, distance, rate of turn, size and sometimes cargo details. They also receive the same from other similarly equipped ships. Most private boat owners with AIS seem to have a receiver only and cannot transmit their own information. We installed a transceiver as we had no radar and wanted to see and be seen. It works and works well, listing the ships details, but also showing them on the chartplotter. Highlight a particular ship icon on the plotter and a pop-up gives all the details.

A danger area can be established around Dreaming On of say 2 miles. Anything that enters that ring or will enter based on projected course rings an alarm. Wonderful gizmo.

The boat copes well with one engine and though this is a favoured way of easy cruising for many cat owners, we are not convinced. Although there is very little rudder correction required by the autopilot it must still slow the boat. So by late Wednesday as we began to pick up the Yucatan Current which sweeps in from south of the Cayman Islands the turns north through the channel, we were on two engines running at an easy 1900 RPM. We were very lucky with the seas. They are usually bad and can be ferocious if wind and current conflict. We had a gradually increasing roller coaster ride, as our speed increased from 6 knots to over 10 as we approached the Mexican island of Cozumel on Thursday. 

The ride on the catamaran is so much less rolly than on a monohull. Although we experienced increasing waves as the current effect increased, we could still move around easily and were still serving coffee in china mugs.

With no weather updates on board, so no update on the cold front, plus not being familiar with the fuel consumption yet, we made the decision to turn into the island of Isla Mujeres on the NE corner of the Mexican Yucatan. No doubt a sensible decision but it will cost us a week as two successive cold fronts close any weather breaks at least until 24th November.

We arrived in Isla Mujeres just after midnight Thursday night, so an arrival in the dark in an unknown harbour! Looking for lights and markers was confused by the background lighting of the hotels on the Cancun coast on the mainland, and some new shoal markers had been added that were not on the charts.

The final turn into the sheltered natural harbour in Isla Mujeres takes a boat very close to the beach, which is somewhat un-nerving at night. However, there were only a handful of other boats at anchor, (some of whom we knew from the Rio Dulce) so plenty of room for us.







Isla Mujeres, Mexico


14 November 2008



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Shops and restaurants in Isla Mujeres




The Catholic church overlooking the main plaza


Dreaming On at the fuel dock


The Island of Isla Mujeres is a great place to wait for suitable weather to head for Florida. A sheltered natural harbour, fuel, water, shops and a great choice of restaurants.

Isla Mujeres, (Island of women), was discovered and named in 1517 by Hernandez Cordoba from Cuba who led a slaving expedition to the new lands. The name is apparently due to the large number of terra cotta female idols he found in the Maya temples and shrines. The island later became a regular hang out for pirates.

The small island is a few miles of the mainland Mexico coast and the mega tourist metropolis of Cancun and has a population of around 15,000. Isla maintains a small town atmosphere and survives on the large numbers of tourists from Cancun who make day visits on the numerous and very frequent ferry services. Geoff’s son Simon visited Cancun a few years ago, has good memories of his day trip to Isla Mujeres along with some beach bar recommendations.

The ferry services make for rough water in the harbour and a challenging crossing to the dock in our little dinghy.

Clearing in to Mexico has always been a drama as rules change daily and there is no “one stop shop” as in the Bahamas and the USA.

We had been told to allow at least half a day. Some cruisers recently had to make the trip by ferry to the mainland just to deposit the Harbour Master fee in a specific bank, then returning to the Harbour Master office with the receipt for final sign off. We were prepared for that, but this week, that was not required. We were through within a couple of hours and a bit of walking. Everyone was very friendly and helpful so no dramas.

Isla Mujeres is a small narrow island with a mainly rocky eastern shoreline but a good sandy beach on the wider north end. This is called Bahia Norte, or better known as “Naughty Beach” due to the topless bathers. Guess that’s why the beach bar recommended by Simon was on that beach? That’s my boy!

On Saturday 15th, late in the day and exactly as predicted, the cold front arrived.

The harbour shelters us from a build up of sea, which is normally the cause of anchors breaking loose, but we still get the wind. A sleepless Saturday night taking it in turns on anchor watch with winds up to 38 knots. We are not yet familiar with the holding ability of the anchor on Dreaming On, so that confidence has to be gained through experience.


Iguana sunning himself




Norte Beach on the north side of Isla Mujeres



      More cold fronts    
  15 to 19 November 2008       This is the time of year when the risk of tropical storms and hurricanes diminishes but the cold fronts heading south from the USA begin. These fronts can be pretty vicious when on the water with clocking winds gusting up to 50 knots in a bad one. It then takes time for the seas to settle.

We went into Isla Mujeres due to one strong cold front rather than risk meeting it on our way to Key West, but ended up sitting out four cold fronts.

  19 to 21 November 2008



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Anchored off Cancun hotel district


Almost anchored in the Inter-Continental swimming pool

  There are a number of regular ferry services across to Cancun and most cruisers anchoring at Isla Mujeres make a visit to Cancun by ferry. The appeal of Cancun to a cruiser is not so much the bars, restaurants and overpriced tourist hangouts, but the fact that there is a Walmart and a Home Depot.

As the bay between Isla Mujeres is relatively sheltered and there appeared to be a reasonable anchorage off the north tourist beach, we decided to sail across on Dreaming On. We enjoyed a good sail, heading almost directly south straight into the small bay and anchored just off the cordoned off swimming area amidst the parasail and jet-ski activities.

A short dinghy ride to a dock and walk across the white sand beach and through the Intercontinental Presidente Hotel took us to the main road and bus stop to catch the tourist "Walmart" bound bus.

Cancun reminded us of parts of Dubai. Coastal resort hotels crowding the beach and and building continuing everywhere. Cancun has the advantage of being on a spit of land behind which is an enormous mangrove lined lagoon. So tourists have the choice of the exposed beach or quieter sailing, jet-skiing and windsurfing in the lagoon.

We sailed across to Cancun twice while waiting at Isla Mujeres.


      Isla Mujeres to Florida    
  26 - 30 November 2008










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Mahi mahi caught on hand line










About to go through the Big Carlos Pass through the bascule bridge










  Our time in Isla Mujeres was not only waiting for a series of cold fronts to pass but also for a break in prevailing weather as we were going against it.
Our planned weather window starting on 27th November was reduced by a new system heading down the Gulf of Mexico towards the west coast of Florida on Sunday, so we knew we had to be in by Saturday afternoon.
So we left Isla Mujeres earlier than planned on Wednesday evening. Headed out around the shallows north of the island in the dark into a sea which had not yet calmed down. Not too bad but we did not find the enjoyable 10 knot ride we had in the Yucatan Current on our way to Isla Mujeres.
Seas calmed early Thursday with wind still on the nose so still motoring. By the time we reached the Gulf Stream between Cuba and the Florida Keys, the water was surprisingly calm, almost glassy and heading NNE we had some easterly help from the current.
Max RPM of the engines is 3800. Max cruising is 2800. We were running on both at 2000 most of the way. Very economical and an easy 7 knots.
About 60NM SW of the Dry Tortugas on Friday morning on glassy seas, Iza caught a magnificent Mahi Mahi. We were eating freshly caught and cooked Mahi Mahi steaks within 30 minutes.
Friday night, NW of Dry Tortugas, very rough. Seas from every angle, a real maelstrom. Fortunately that settled early Saturday. Still motoring into head winds!
No sailing until about 20 miles off the Florida coast. First real sail so far on Dreaming On and we still have a lot to learn, but 7-8 knots in 15 knots of wind. Very stable, but the acceleration is the most notable feeling. The boat slows down in a wave but with so little drag accelerates back to speed very quickly.
One mile off our intended entry point into the inland waterway, we prepared to start engines and drop sails. Starboard engine would not start. Fuel starvation. Some gunk in the tanks had blocked everything. Tried to fix but running out of daylight and our entry definitely daylight only.
We had chose Florida’s west coast as have not sailed there before and know Florida’s east coast too well. Needed a change. Chose Ft. Myers Beach as being the most southerly suitable point allowing anchoring and with some good facilities. No space these days for anchoring on Florida’s East Coast.
Main entry to Ft. Myers Beach Matanzas Harbor is through a fixed 65’ bridge. We have a 71’ mast! Alternate southern entrance, through shoaling, poorly marked channel into Big Carlos Pass and through opening bridge.
However, on our way in through the shoals, we misjudged it and went aground. Two engines would have pulled us off but with the two short keels aground, one engine just spins the boat around going nowhere!
Fortunately, we are members of Tow Boat US. They arrived in 45 minutes but already after dark. They had to find a safe route to get to us and get us out so he spent some time charting depths. Took 10 minutes to pull us off then he towed us through the shoals into the channel before the bridge to a safe anchorage. Saturday night was a quiet night at anchor and sleep catch up.
Sunday morning, up early to get through the bridge before the big winds, 30 knots plus were due to hit. Neither engine would start!
Found blocked breather in port engine fuel tank, cleared and started port, but still no luck with starboard. So through bridge by 9am on one engine.
Although cruising guides imply there is a dredged channel north through the islands and the Matanzas Pass to Ft. Myers Beach Harbor, it no longer exists. After 1 mile through Estero Bay with depth gauge showing close to zero clearance for some of that, we grounded in soft silt. Put anchor down. Wind rose to 31 knots. That and rising tide eventually moving us one hour later. Another half mile and the same again. Finally clear of Estero Bay and with keel clearances between zero and 10’ we found our way into Fort Myers Beach Harbor, only to find that there is now no anchoring, only paid mooring buoys!
So that’s where we went. The mooring buoys are all new and seem in good condition. They are inexpensive compared with the east coast so we’ll be here while we sort our next move. Sat out the remainder of Sunday on the mooring as the cold front passed with lots of rain and high winds.
The following day we had to go to Fort Myers Airport to clear into the US. At some stage we will need to get our fuel tanks cleaned and fuel polished.
These little incidents are all a learning curve. Fixing things with just the handful of tools we carried down to Belize is also a challenge, but not much has beaten us yet. The Moorings mechanics had unknowingly left a few spanners (wrenches) rusting in the bilge. So those have been cleaned up and put to good use.
Our new AIS, (Automatic Identification System) was absolute magic. All ships with AIS within up to 21 NM displayed on the chartplotter as arrows on their respective bearing. Place cursor over the arrow and brief speed and heading info displayed. Select full info and pop up shows size, name, call sign, passenger or cargo, distance, speed, heading, destination, rate of turn, distance and time to intercept our heading. Placed a 2NM safety zone around Dreaming On. Any that would enter our safety zone within a period of 24 minutes rang an alarm. We have an AIS transceiver, so we were also transmitting similar but briefer details of Dreaming On to all.
There were times in the north Yucatan Channel when there were up to four large ships around at a time. Seeing them graphically and knowing exactly where they are going is very comforting.
Brilliant system. However, you still have to watch for the little guys out there without AIS!

Cool winds

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USA: 1-954 4785948        UK:  +44 7855388258         Skype: geoff.iza