I am wet. I am cold. My bruises hurt. My scrapes burn. My head aches. Breaded in sand like a schnitzel I feel hunger coming up.
I take a deep drag. The sweet smoke befogs my mind and my sight but I still make out Seefalke’s anchor light in the distance. So she is still there, her anchor holds.
Already a little more relaxed I pass the joint on to Ricardo, or was it Raul or Eduardo? Doesn’t matter. All of a sudden he jumps up, as if stung by an adder, pointing the glowing stick into the dark and sputters:
“Hey, someone is signaling us from your boat!”
Worried about our smokable dinner, the only thing we have, I carefully take it off his trembling fingers, still stretched out, pointing to the ocean, before I explain:
“No, amigo, it’s just the boat moving in the swell, I am all by myself.”
“Ahh, ok.” And after a short break: “But how will you get back to your boat then?”, his voice is truly compassionate.
“Yes, this is the million dollar question.”, I take another drag and Seefalke’s light seems a bit less clear now, as if somebody just dimmed it a little.
Clearer, however, is the course of events that brought me into this unfortunate situation.
Two days ago my friend Oliver whom I haven’t seen forever (which technically is true because we knew each other from Facebook only) texted me and let me know that he and his family, on their odyssey back to their boat in Italy, had a one day layover in Cancún which is just a three hours sail from Isla Mujeres, my COVID quarantine home. They would stay at Crowne Paradiso hotel right at the beach in the south of Cancún’s hotel zone.
A Textbook No-Go Anchorage
A quick look at the chart shows me that this is a textbook no-go anchorage: a lee shore, totally open to the sea, exposed to wind and swell with a steep ocean bed that will certainly create an impressive surf. Yes, surfers would love it, I am sure. Sailors? Not so much.
But the closest reasonable anchorage is miles away so I start negotiating with myself. Lazy tourist vs. experienced captain. It is a short fight the captain is doomed to lose. The arguments are compelling, though:
There have been only light winds for the last couple of days, so no major swell is expected. Accordingly the surf would be moderate and most likely manageable. Videos from the beach sent to me by my friend support these assumptions. Also it would only be for a couple of hours anyway. No harm, no foul. Easy peasy.
Hardly ever I was so wrong.
Raul or Ricardo or Eduardo (I will just call him Ricardo from now on, I honestly don’t remember his name. If he ever will read this he will forgive me.) slowly like in slow motion falls back on his camping chair. I offer him our smoke but he just shakes his head. So I pass the joint to the other guy whose name I did not even try to remember.
And so for a while my brand new beach buddies and me just sit there and stare into the night. Three complete strangers passing a joint and sharing saliva while the world is locked down behind face masks. It sure has something surreal.
The Rock with the Friendly Face
I feel a little nauseous – I am just not used to all that weed – and I feel the need to stretch my legs. So I get up and walk a few steps on the beach. The fresh night breeze feels good.
I look up, a perfectly clear sky, beautiful. The Milky Way, Saturn and Jupiter, and gazillion stars like in a planetarium, just real. Then still in awe and with my eyes up in the skies, I trip, I stumble, I fall. And while I am wondering who t.. f… put this huge rock in the middle of this meticulously clean beach, the rock moves its head and looks at me with big eyes and a friendly face.
Was I that stoned already? From just a few drags of medium quality weed? Ok, yes, I am not used to it, I admit. But still…
It takes a while, though, until I realize it is not a rock but a huge turtle. And while we look each other in the eyes, I am sober instantaneously. Then the turtle gives me one last smile before it turns its head and continues its cumbersome mission.
In a sailor’s life the lows and highs really are close together. I slowly get up and then I realize that the entire beach is full of turtles. Amazing!! I can’t identify them but they’re approximately my size. Smaller than a Leatherback but much bigger than a Loggerhead. And still more and more are beaching, a D-Day like invasion.
I love them. There is hardly any other animal that appears so peaceful and elegant. I once swam with Loggerhead turtles in Cabo Verde in West Africa. They don’t swim, they fly, under water, though, gracefully gliding, swinging their fins like wings. They are not afraid but curious about this funny creature, awkwardly kicking arms and legs to stay afloat: me. I remember I was so in awe that I totally forgot about the current and I had a hard time getting back to the beach.
On my way here I crashed a passionate turtle date as I was sailing. That was less elegant but quite funny. Hmmm, at least for me. I am sure they didn’t appreciate it too much. I hope for them that they were still in the mood to continue what they started.
Beaching Like a Boss
Then I see one beaching. My eyes got used to the darkness and the moon just got over the horizon. A few powerful pulls gets the turtle on top of the wave and it surfs the wave like a boss and then gently touches down on the beach. Ten out of ten! But as soon as the turtle leaves her element all grace and elegance is gone and it is the turtle that turns into a funny creature, awkwardly kicking its fins to gain higher grounds.
I remember my recent beaching experience that certainly was less graceful. One out of ten tops.
I arrive at my anchorage and against all odds the swell is significant. The tourist in me is surprised, the captain is pissed. He should have known better. It takes me two attempts until I find a spot that somewhat suits me. 400 m from the beach the movements are bearable.
I prepare myself and my dinghy for the ride, switch the anchor light on because I know I won’t be back before sunset and crank the outboarder. I bought the dinghy just two days ago: an ancient self-made fiber-glass boat with a keel made from motorcycle parts. Very light, very stable in the water. It takes the waves well.
As I approach the beach I feel the swell building up. The swell hits the rising seabed, the waves get higher and steeper. They break. Not good! And sooner than I expected I surf down the first wave, then the second. The third lifts me up and starts breaking. With breathtaking speed the beach comes closer and closer. It is a steep beach, must be low tide. I throttle my out-boarder, the wave makes a hissing noise as if it was laughing at me for my desperate attempt to slow down. In fact I feel if I would go just a little faster, I would take off and fly. And I feel the mental kick that surfers get rushing down the waves in insane speed. Stoked, is what they call it. Just I am not standing on a surf board but sitting in a dinghy that would hardly survive the impact. And I am not too sure if I would survive the impact either. But at this time I kind of run out of choices.
The impact is brutal. It is like the sea spits me out in a wild cough. As the dinghy hits the beach and comes to a sudden stop I am catapulted over the rim and onto the beach. Ouch that hurt.
I get up as soon as my bruised body allows and start pulling the dinghy out of the surf. But the next wave fills it with at least a quarter ton of water and it becomes an impossible task for me. But then I get some help. Four guys finally get the chance to use their beach bodies for something different than just posing for easily impressed bikini girls. They help me to pull the dinghy up the beach and with joint efforts we get it done.
Not much in common with the graceful landing of my turtles.
I walk back to my brand new best friends, where I use the last two percent of my phone battery to send a message to Steve from S/V Pili Aloha that I won’t make it to the morning cruisers’ net radio conference that I was supposed to run the next morning. I send a second message to Günter from S/V Acapulco in case Pili Aloha would not read their emails. Then I take a photo of my turtle friend and my phone dies. Ok, that was that.
Then I fall on a beach lounge and get ready to sleep. I am still wet and covered in sand, a bit cold, too. Ricardo brings me a blanket, dirty but warm. I accept it gratefully. No blanket could be dirty enough to make me any dirtier at this point.
Then I see one of the turtles getting back into the water. It looks so easy for them. What did I do wrong what those ancient creatures do so much better? I guess, I am missing a few million years of evolution.
After I secure the dinghy I walk up the beach and to the road that leads me to the hotel. Then the next unpleasant surprise: they don’t let me in. And that is not because I am soaking wet or covered in sand or because maybe I look like a bum altogether. It is because of COVID, only hotel guests are allowed. (I do have the impression that the COVID excuse is very welcome, though.) But they are sweet and recommend a restaurant nearby and a beach bar. My friend and I agree we would meet there and I head that way.
Roll Tide, Roll
The only flaw in the plan is that both restaurant and beach bar are closed. So we end up just sitting at the beach chatting about this and that. A nice night, a fresh breeze, clear skies. But the swell is building up, it is not getting any better, rising tide. Roll tide, roll, I remember Alabama’s college football team’s battle cry.
I am starting to get worried. We count the waves. There is a rhythm: one big one, one a bit smaller, then four to five small ones. So the plan is to crank the motor, get the dinghy ready and after the somewhat smaller than the big one Olli would push the boat over it, I would hit gas and off I’d go. Once over the first surf I would be safe. That is our plan.
So we get the dinghy ready and in position. However, obviously for a moment the sea forgets about the rhythm and after the big one there is another big one and another one and another one. The first one throws me out of the dinghy, the second one smashes the motor support into pieces. I barely rescue the motor to the beach. Then I run back into the water to push the boat while Olli is pulling. It is almost completely filled with water by now.
Then the undertow drags me into the sea until the next wave grabs me brutally and relentlessly and rolls me over and over again until the hurtful collision of my head with the dinghy forces me into an abrupt stop.
I see stars, I swallow water, lots of it, I feel close to pass out and faint. A knockout. Well aimed. “One, two, three…”
I hear the referee counting me out. Now that was a short fight. Knocked down in the first round. Even in my most pessimistic thoughts that was not what I had expected.
“Four, five…!” Not a good time!
“Six, seven…!” Not good at all!!
“Eight…!” What would Rocky do? “Get up!!” I hear my crowd desperately cheering for me.
“Nine…!” As I feel the undertow grabbing me again, I finally get back on my feet and stumble up the beach. Screw the dinghy, not worth it!! And no, swimming is not an option. Sometimes sailing is like boxing: It is not about how hard you can hit, it’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward.
Olli and I sit down, soaking wet from sweat and seawater and we watch like the powerful seas crash my poor dinghy into pieces. Now I feel my bruises and scrapes burning in the salty water.
Yes, the turtles sure do better!
I fall asleep.
When I wake up the tropical sun is already burning down on me again. No turtles. Only their distinct trails in the sand prove it was not a dream.
Then I see them. The jetskies. My ride!! My beach sleepover buddies tell me the jetski guys will be here sometime between 09:00 and 10:00. So I wait patiently until the kids show up. We chat a little and I learn that they usually charge 55 USD for half an hour. But we need to wait for the boss because he is the man with the keys.
Then this fat guy enters the scene, and I know without telling that this is the boss. The kids brief him shortly and he turns to me: “500 USD!”
First I think my Spanish turned from bad to worse overnight and I ask him if he meant 500 pesos which is approximately 25 USD which sounded like a fair price to me. No, he meant 500 USD and this is what I would have to pay to get back to my boat. I thought a while until I felt it was appropriate to call him some names, a mix of Spanish and English but I think he got the point because all of a sudden the price drops to 100 USD.
I offer him 50 USD instead:
”My last word.” “100 USD, my last word.” “Ok, here is the deal, 1500 pesos and you take me, my jerrycans and my motor.”
After a short hesitation he agrees and we load the jerrycans on one of the jetskies. The motor does not fit but they will come back with it.
Once back on my boat I realize that they have little reason to come back with my motor. And they must have had the exact same thought because nobody is coming back with my motor. Something tells me they had this thought long before me. After some 20 minutes of helpless waiting I weigh anchor and set sail. It must look graceful from the beach. They have to give me that!
Sometimes you lose and sometimes it is the others who win. I admit defeat. For now.
But I will be back!
Make sure to read Mexican Standoff – Part 2: Retaliation