It is dark. Pitch black. Impervious. Only scattered low declination stars hint at the existence of more boats at this anchorage. I know there are dozens.
Most of them have their anchor lights on, but not all of them. During the day I spent some time memorizing a path through this maze of boats and shoals, set umpteen waypoints on my GPS, in case I had to leave my anchorage at night. Until the last moment I hoped it would not become necessary. Hope dies last.
It just did its last breath for me.
When the Hope Dies
My hope died with a phone call of an unknown Mexican number at 01:00 in the morning: “Papa, my phone is dead.” I hear Tom’s voice mixed with static. “I don’t have enough money, my debit card doesn’t work. I am using the phone of a taxi driver at Cancun airport. I am negotiating with him. I think I can convince him to drive me to our meeting point.” And then the line is dead. As dead as my hope.
This was the first time I heard from Tom, my 17-year old son, after that mysterious text message I received in the late afternoon: “I arrived in Mexico-City. I got released after I got arrested at the security checkpoint. They didn’t like my key chain. All good now. Headed to gate.”
Everyone who knows me knows that my nerves could easily replace Golden Gate Bridge’s steel cables. But I must admit that this text message put some additional strain on them. Just very shortly, though. Until I benevolently weighed the information contained in this message:
All Is Good
First, he arrived in Mexico-City. As the name indicates this place is in Mexico. So, he made it across the border of which I didn’t exactly know if it was still open. In the previous evening they said that the Mexican border to the US would be closed from midnight on for “non-essential” travel. Is a minor re-uniting with his father “essential”? It sounded like it. So the first part made me relief.
Second he got released. This means he is not arrested anymore, so I don’t have to bail him out of a Mexican jail. Wonderful! This has the potential to make my day.
Then the worrying part, he got arrested for his key chain. I remember that stupid key chain. It is a life .300 AAC Blackout 7.62 mm round made inoperative and turned into a souvenir. These rounds are only used by special forces or – by my son. I got it for him a few years ago when I took him to a shooting range in Birmingham, AL. Don’t judge me! And yes, it is a bad idea to take a life round onto an airplane, even an inoperative one. A short moment I wonder why this already hadn’t become a problem when he boarded that flight to Mexico-City. But then it occurred to me that he flew from Texas. No more questions.
So, and last not least he was headed to his gate which means there was a chance he would still make his connection to Cancun.
So, as he said all was good after all and I relaxed. The rest of the afternoon I spent watching this little airplane icon on my Flightradar24 app almost unnoticeably creeping towards Cancun. And when I was not watching that little icon, I was studying Google Earth.
On my screen I was going over the coast line of Cancun. Again and again. Zooming in, then zooming out, scrolling further North, then zooming in again. Then repeating the same procedure further South. I felt like in the Combat Information Center of a naval landing ship, masterminding a D-Day like satellite aided naval landing operation.
I had to find a beach where I could land my dinghy at a place that had access to the public and was in reasonable walking distance to our meeting point. I was happy now that we agreed on a fallback position before. Something had told me that we might need that, knowing that Tom is notoriously out of money and his phone notoriously out of battery.
Our fallback position was in the front of the ferry terminal at Puerto Juarez. This is where the ferries go from Cancun to Isla Mujeres, my current anchorage. A short 20 minutes ride with those high speed ferries. Just they don’t go from midnight to 06:30 in the morning. For a split second I considered just telling him to cuddle up with his clothes on a beach and wait for the first morning ferry. I rejected this option as soon as I imagined what his mother would all do to me if she found out. I felt the anticipated pain and made Seefalke ready for some nighttime evac ops.
So, I couldn’t land at the ferry terminal. That was obvious. The North was no option, either. When I went to Cancun to receive my temporary import permit I noticed that the Northern beach section was part of a military facility. I figured conducting a night landing operation exercise at a military facility might be taken wrongly and would possibly cause more trouble than a key chain. So I looked at the beaches further South. There seemed to be mainly hotels. I have seen the hotels in the area. They all have private beaches to protect their valuable guests from us trespassers.
Call of Duty
Like in my favorite computer game “Call of Duty” when you have to decide between assault or stealth strategy I evaluated my chances. The military facility was the professional level. I hadn’t played the game in a while and didn’t feel ready for that just yet. At the hotels I had to evade a few surveillance cameras for sure, avoid the guards and jump a fence or a wall and do the same in reverse order when I would come back again. That still sounded pretty advanced to me. There had to be something for beginners, too!
But hey, wasn’t there a place with beached boats? I zoom in a little more. Yes, there was a pier with fishing vessels and a short beach section with small fishing boats. That looked good! Really good! This means that spot was good for beaching with no reefs and had access to the public. And for fishermen nighttime is nothing special. They wouldn’t be surprised to see a boat arriving at night and call the police on me. Also this beach section was maximum a one kilometer walk from our rendezvous location. Perfect. Rookie-level. I marked this beach position in my Navionics system and charted my route.
The next challenge was the weather. Force five winds from the East are in the forecast. This meant I will have to anchor Seefalke off a luv shore with onshore wind and most probably I will have to deal with some surf on the beach. Great! Not impossible but It’s gonna get wet!
The Calm Before the Storm
So after that phone call I crank the 62 hp Vetus Diesel, turn on the deck light that brightly illuminates the foredeck and unlock the anchor. Clack-clack-clack-clack the chain rattles over the windlass and into the chain locker. From time to time I stop for a few seconds to allow the boat to move forward towards the anchor and take the strain out of the chain. After a few minutes the boat is right on top of the anchor. I mark the position on my GPS, put the engine into gear and thread my way out of the anchorage and into the channel.
The channel leads me close past the ferry terminal on Isla Mujeres and past Playa Centro. The beach that never sleeps does sleep after all. Ok, it is 01:30. At 01:30 every beach should have the right to sleep. And every man, too. Fathers are excluded, I guess. I yawn. Finally I round the two markers with the red three second flash identifier and take a turn to port onto my course to Cancun. With the nasty current in Bahia Mujeres, which in fact is rather a channel than a bay, it is going to take me 1.5 hours. I know I will make it up on the way back.
As I am leaving the lee of Isla Mujeres I feel how the seas are building up. Nothing serious for Seefalke but mentally I am already in my dinghy trying to make it to the beach half-way dry. The night is clear, it is a spectacular sight, only slightly light-polluted by the illuminated skyline of Cancun. Falling stars are guiding me, the autopilot keeps us on a straight line to our next waypoint. I love it.
Marine Social Distancing
No ship out here. The marine version of social distancing maybe, I think with a bitter smile, my thoughts inevitably circle around the all dominating news item, with a late night sailor-minded touch of course.
Corona has the world by its balls, this is certain. The world doesn’t like it but the more the world is trying to shake it off, the harder the squeeze. When I left Cuba a little over a week ago, the world in the Caribbean was still ok. When I arrived in Mexico after a three day passage, nothing remained as we know it. Mexico was almost the only country in the entire Caribbean that would still allow arrivals without quarantine. Everybody else had closed their sea borders. At the moment no ship is fast enough to beat the current development. In the meantime, Cuba started to expel all 60,000 tourists, Europe was in an entire lockdown with strict curfews and the US shut down colleges and schools and entire states.
This was when Tom became homeless. He usually lives at a dormitory of the University of South Alabama in Mobile but then moved to friends in Texas. As much as I appreciated their hospitality (Thank you, Dale!!) I wanted Tom close if and when the shit hits the fan. And there was way too much shit populating the airspace around way too many fans to take my chances. So I put him on a plane from Dallas to Mexico-City, apparently in the very last moment. One day later the flight connection was suspended.
Shortly before 03:00 I reach my waypoint and zig-zag through the numerous shoals. All sand here and with Seefalke’s hull made from solid marine steel I am not really worried about touching the ground. Everything looks slightly different in the dark reality than it did on the high res satellite images on my screen.
Mothership In Position
But I can see the ferry terminal with its parked ferries. I can see the pier with the fishing trawlers and I can see the hotels further South. And there I see the beach. Or better I know it’s there because I don’t see a thing. It is the only section of the coastline that is dark. I check the beach with my Steiner binocular. A great piece! I see maybe one dozen beached small fishing boats, all beached and anchored with a stern anchor. I see a little gap between two boats that I decide to aim for. I also see a dark undefined structure that possibly could be a wooden dock reaching out into the sea. But I am not sure. If it is, I will dock my dinghy there. Would be much easier than beaching in this uncomfortable surf.
When I have around 0.5 m (2 ft) water below my keel I feel it is a good time to drop the anchor. I set 30 m (100 ft) of chain in 2 m (7 ft) of water. I drive it in real good, too, reving up the Vetus in reverse. That should be enough, even on a luv shore with this swell. I turn on every light I have to illuminate Seefalke as much as I can. I want to minimize the chance that a drunk fisherman drives his boat right into it because he is going by memory and not at sight. Then I take my Steiner and step into the dinghy, my tiny rubber landing craft.
And yes, the dinghy is full of water. Partly because of the waves, partly because it has a leak. So I start bailing. At least the motor cranks on the first pull. The Cubans who fixed it back at the boatyard in Varadero did a fantastic job. So, I put the little 2.5 Mercury in gear and head for what has become Omaha Beach to me. As I come closer I almost bump into a fishing boat anchored and with no lights on but I manage to dart sideways in the last moment. The surf is rocking me badly, it is almost impossible to control my tiny boat with its toy as a motor. A rodeo is kindergarten against this.
Then an abrupt stop. Huh? Did I hit the ground? No, I didn’t. The motor got caught by an anchor rode that I didn’t see. I am lucky it didn’t rip the motor off the transom. Or myself. As I untangle the rode I can now identify that black structure that I saw from Seefalke. It really is a small wooden dock, reaching into the sea just enough so that I don’t need to lift the motor. Perfect. I tie the dinghy to one of the poles and jump on land.
I can see streetlights in the distance and the lights of a supermarket so yes, as I thought from Google Earth, there is access to the public. I trudge through the sand with my heavy military boots and head to the ferry terminal. But Tom is not there.
To be precise nobody is there. Nobody and nothing. The street is deserted, not a single soul, not a single car. I call him, shout his name again and again. The only response is coming from some stray dogs barking back at me. Hush, puppies… But no Tom.
Finally I decide to go into the terminal. And there I see him. He already made friends with the security guys there and had persuaded the owner of the little store to let him charge his mobile phone. Yeah, he doesn’t waste a minute to socialize, even in times of social distancing. A handshake, a hug and we walk back to the beach together.
At the beach we run into a fisherman. In my basic Spanish I explain to him, that we used his dock temporarily to get back to our sailboat. He looks at me with big eyes and even greater pupils and has no further questions but he watches every step of us with amused interest. I think he is just high as a kite and thinks better don’t mess with those organized traffickers. Because this is how we must look to him: A ship anchors in the night. One man without bags comes ashore. Two men with bags leave the shore. No words spoken. The ship disappears into the dark. He sure doesn’t want to mess up this delivery.
The dinghy is too small for the two of us and Tom’s luggage. So we first load his bag and his backpack. Then I push the dinghy over the surf and all the way out where our mothership is patiently waiting in the dark. Then I go back for Tom.
Wet from tip to toe I crank the engine and weigh the anchor and under the monotonous sound of the powerful Diesel we disappear into the night.
Then I call his mom. It is 04:20 when I make the entry in the ship’s log “Tom retrieved. Mission complete. Headed back to Isla Mujeres.”
At 05:30 the anchor drops at the exact same spot where it was five hours ago. Finally we go to sleep as if nothing ever happened.
No big deal after all.