The opening in the reef is narrow but clearly marked with a yellow buoy. We eye it warily as the rough seas outside the reef break around it. We watch a few big dive boats go out and head into the steep waves on the outside. They have much bigger engines than ours. Should we go for it? Once we go, there is no turning back.
We are heading for Mexico, hoping to make it to Isla Mujeres before Christmas which is 4 days away. To get there, we will have to sail overnight without stopping. The weather is predicted to be OK for the next few days, without the squalls we’ve been having, but still pretty brisk winds coming from the northeast, which is the direction we will be traveling. We can always use the engine to get us upwind. It’s not ideal, but we are already checked out of Belize and anxious to get back to Mexico.
So, we head into the cut. We take the diagonal course laid out in the book headed straight for the yellow buoy. But after a while Matt stops looking at the GPS. He can see where to go. He is reading the waves. Once we get to the buoy we turn to face the waves head on. This is it! We surf over the waves, coming steeply down the other side. Water crashes over the front of the deck. I am so glad the boys are safely napping down below.
The boat handles the waves beautifully, and soon we are away from the reef and the worst of the breaking waves. Ha ha! We did it! We are out on the open ocean! We have a long journey ahead of us but I feel like celebrating! Graysen wakes up from his nap and I break out some drinks and snacks. We keep the mainsail up and the engine on and try to make some headway through the big, rolling waves.
A little while later we are all enjoying the sunshine and snacks when the engine starts to sputter and cough. Oh shit. Not now!
Stay calm. We still have sails.
Matt is in the engine compartment trying to figure out what is going on while I take the helm. I have us pointed in the right direction, but the wind and waves are pushing us west instead of north. Matt gets the engine going again and we head back to our course, but a few minutes later it dies again.
I think about when we had Three Lions and we were headed into Utila in the Bay Islands just at sunset. The wind died. We started up the engine but a few minutes later I went down into the salon and there was water everywhere. The coolant hose burst and we were filling the boat with sea water. Matt stopped the engine, threw up the sails, and sailed us, with the lightest wind, between the reef into the bay and anchored safely in the dark.
I have enormous faith in Matt and his ability to fix things. He always comes through. Now he is coming out of the engine compartment drenched in sweat. Soaked. It is not easy to fix an engine in high seas with the heat of the Caribbean sun compounding the heat of the engine.
“I need to take a break.” He says. I heat up dinner while he pulls out the jib and gets us going in the right direction. Everyone is feeling a bit seasick and no one eats more than a few bites of the chili.
It is starting to get dark now and we can still see the lights from Ambergris Caye. We can’t turn around and go back through the reef without an engine. We could go 30 miles further south and go back in through the reef through a wider cut, but neither of us really want to do that. We decide to push on and hope that the waves settle down a bit and Matt can figure out the engine the next day.
Matt and the boys lay down while I stay on watch. Graysen sleeps in the cockpit with his life jacket on and clipped in so he doesn’t fall off the bench. Rylan lays with Matt in the aft cabin. I hear him crying suddenly, then “Oh, no!” from Matt. Rylan’s puked in our bed. Great! What’s one more thing?
The stars come out, blinding me with their beauty. The wind and the waves are still raging but somehow I feel peace. There is a certain kind of magic sailing in the night. As much as I loathe missing sleep, I enjoy being alone with the wind, waves and stars.
A bright light appears behind me and soon reveals itself to be a cruise ship. It is heading north northeast, the direction I want to go, but since the wind is coming from there, I am going east, directly into its path. It gets closer and closer. A million lights illuminate all the different decks and music drifts my way on the wind. I imagine all the people dining and dancing and retiring to their cabins to get a good night sleep and I am slightly jealous. Why do we always have to do this the difficult way?
We have the right of way, but I can’t take the chance of getting smashed by a cruise ship so I tack. He cruises by effortlessly on my port side. I see the flash of a camera go off as a passenger takes our photo. It must be quite beautiful to see the sails illuminated by the steaming lights. Before long the cruise ship disappears over the horizon. They will be in Cozumel by sunrise and we will still be tossing about on this sea.
Two more cruise ships pass me and I am grateful for their company on this windy night. It is almost 11 and my head is starting to nod. Matt sticks his head out of the aft hatch to see how things are going. We trade places and I lay down in the bed for a little sleep.
At first I have trouble getting to sleep with the boat straining into the wind. It is surprising how loud it is with the water rushing by and the creaking and groaning of the boat. I try not to squash Rylan as I am tossed about the bed by the rolling waves. Before I know it, Matt is calling me and it is my turn for watch again. My body does not want to get up, but I know Matt is exhausted.
My duties on watch are few. We have auto-helm so I don’t have to sit and steer the boat. I do have to watch out for ships and tack occasionally to keep us on course and adjust the sails and course as the wind shifts slightly. The moon is up by now, giving everything a warm glow. It is 3:30 and I know the dawn will come in just a few hours. I alternate between sitting behind the wheel where I get a face full of cool wind and hiding behind the dodger, where I almost fall asleep.
Finally, slowly, a soft light appears on the horizon. We made it through the first night! The boys wake up with the sun and I am thankful for the company. We look for shapes in the clouds and listen to Sparkle Stories I downloaded. We are behind the Chinchorro Bank, a huge atoll, so the seas are much calmer.
When Matt wakes up I manage to make some oatmeal, a couple cups of tea, and do the dishes from the night before. Then he gets to work on the engine. It’s not getting fuel. He bleeds the air out of the system and it starts up again. Yay!! Nice work Matt! The wind is really picking up and getting gusty, so we pull in the jib and motor sail.
We celebrate a bit and then Matt finally lays down to take a nap. A few minutes later, I hear the dreaded sound again. Cough, sputter, then the high pitched sound the ignition makes when the key is turned but the engine is not on. Shit! Double shit!
There is a large bay with a few safe anchorages just ahead of us, but the sun is sinking low in the sky and we won’t make it there before dark without an engine. There is too much reef, rocks, and shallow water to take a chance. We will have to keep going. At least out here on the ocean we are relatively safe. We are not even half-way there.
The second night is similar to the first except there are no cruise ships or any other boats to keep me company. The night is black as black can be. The wind is stronger, and even with the sails reefed, we are cruising. While it is nice to make up time, sailing upwind through these waves is rough. It takes great effort to move around the boat, so I prefer to stay in the cockpit. I stare at the waves looking for bioluminescence. Whenever I start to nod off, a wave will shake me awake again.
I think about why we are here. What draws Matt and I to these situations? Most parents take their kids to see Santa Clause for Christmas, we take them on a crazy sailing trip. The boys are doing pretty well considering how rough it is. Did I mention we don’t have Christmas presents for them yet? Or anything resembling a tree? We don’t even have much fresh food because we are not allowed to take it into Mexico with us. What happens if we don’t make it to a town? We will be eating rice and beans for Christmas dinner, and Santa might not even make it. Worst. Parents. Ever.
I look for the moon in the east, where it should be rising. Through a short bank of dark gray clouds it emerges. The ultra-thin crescent looks like a cradle as it rises out of the sky. It is breathtaking. A simple reminder of what is really important. We are safe and healthy and together. It may take us longer than anticipated to reach our destination, but we will get there.
When Matt gets up we decide to stop in Cozumel instead of going the extra 50 miles to Isla Mujeres. Cozumel is a cruise ship town with a party reputation. Not really our thing. It is supposedly more difficult to check into Mexico there, and the anchorage is notoriously a bit rough, but we will just have to deal. Anything to stop moving. We should be able to get in there under sail and drop anchor so Matt can fix the engine without the rough seas.
The wind dies down a bit and the waves improve, especially as we get behind Cozumel Island, making it almost a pleasant day of sailing. We tack up the coast and reach San Miguel, the town on Cozumel as the sun is sinking low in the sky again. It is difficult to tell where the anchorage is because there are so many cruise ships and new development that makes our map seriously outdated. We need to anchor before it gets dark. Finally, we spot a few masts and know we have gone far enough.
As we get close, we pull the jib in to slow us down and glide towards the other boats. There is a small boat with some spear fishermen in the water in front of us, but our steering capacity is a bit limited. We think we have them all accounted for, but as we silently sail past I hear one of them say we are right over another guy. A second later he comes up with a scared look in his eyes.
We turn upwind and drop the anchor. Relief.
Matt goes to put the main sail down and finds that the cover of the halyard is torn right off. Only the core is holding the sail up. Thankfully it didn’t break through while we were sailing! One more thing we have to fix before we can go anywhere. For now, I am filled with gratitude to be anchored in one spot. We are mentally and physically exhausted, but happy we made the journey.