December 2nd – 3rd: San Pedro – Isla Cozumel, Mexico
We left early in the morning under clear skies and reasonable seas with Wildcat following us through the cut. It was a pretty smooth day, with mild winds and seas. We averaged around six knots, with a small current opposing us (surprise, surprise!). The two boats stayed close together, and as the sun rose, we could see Cozumel, our destination. From what we read, there is really only one marina in Cozumel – Club Nautico Cozumel. We had tried calling them from San Pedro, as had Wildcat, but neither one of us got an answer. Despite this, we decided to proceed to the marina. We hailed them on the VHF, but no response. We went inside the marina, and someone on a boat there told us to call on channel 6. We did that, and no response. We could see some empty slips – most of the slips were Med-moor style. We finally talked to a security guard on the VHF who could speak some English, and he asked us how long we wanted to stay – we told him two or three nights. After a few minutes, he told us they had no slips. We didn’t believe that was true, and they didn’t want to deal with us as a transient yacht, but what could we do? We had wanted to stay here to make it easy to check-in; we could either use an agent that was at the marina, or use taxis to get to the offices. From what we knew, there was no dinghy dock at the port.
We left the marina and called Wildcat to tell them it was a no-go. The cruising guide had mentioned a sort-of-marina to the south of town, although it sounded to us like a small inlet where local boats tied up. The guide said you could med-moor to the wall, but a local boat might come and kick you out. Carl wanted to try it; we thought this was a loser move, but we followed him anyway. It’s a very narrow entrance, and they could just fit. We watched them go in, and then back out – there wasn’t enough room to turn around. After they got out, we decided to look at another alternative – Marina El Cid at Puerto Morelos on the mainland, north of Playa del Carmen. Anton had recommended this marina, but we knew that we would have to go to Playa del Carmen to check in. We called them on the phone, but could not get an answer. Apparently Mexico was closed. We were frustrated and tired by this time. WE finally decided to anchor in town, near what we thought was the Port Captain’s office. We dropped the hook in a sandy spot, and decided to take a much-needed nap before going ashore to check in.
Position at destination: 20°30.939’ N, 86°56.947’ W
Air temp: 82°, Humidity: 66%, Water temp: 83°
Nautical miles for this leg: 182.9; Total 5974
Departed at 6:15am, arrived at 10:00am (one day later)
December 4th – 5th: The ultimate check-in cha-cha at Cozumel
After a couple of hours, we got up and took the dinghies close to what we thought was the port captain’s office. We had to anchor the dinghies in a relatively rocky area and wade ashore. Rose, Candace, and Carl’s parents went off for lunch and shopping while Carl and I visited the Capitania. We found the office, but we were told in broken English to go to an auxiliary office next door. We went in to that office, and found someone who could speak English well. He explained the check-in process to us:
- Health inspection
- Port Captain (to pay port fees)
Of course, these were all in different locations, so there was no way that we could get all of this done by 3:00, when the Port Captain’s office would close. The guy then told us that we really should have waited until Isla Mujeres to check in which would be much easier. We figured that now that we had reported ourselves, going to Isla Mujeres would not be an option, so we decided we would have to wait and do the cha-cha the next day. He gave us the forms, told us to get them stamped, and return to make the payment, which could be done at his office. We found our crewmates having drinks, so we joined them for a late lunch.
Early the next morning, I took Little Blend to the port in town and discovered a couple of potential dinghy docks. One was near a dive shop, and the guide said that you could pay them a nominal 20 peso fee to use it. We did that, but we still paid a local boater 200 pesos to “watch” our dinghy. Carl, Candace, Rosé, and I marched in to town to the immigration office. His parents elected to stay on board. We found the office, filled out the required forms, paid our $26 each for the tourist card (this time keeping the receipt!), and we were told that we had to go to the health inspection next, but the doctor was out, so we would need to wait an hour. Carl found out that his parents had to be at immigration in person, so we walked back to the harbor. Carl took our dinghy to go fetch his parents, while Rosé, Candace and I had a drink at a tourist watering hole.
Carl came back with his folks, finished their immigration procedure, and then we all walked the few blocks to see the doctor for our “health inspection”. This turned out to be the doctor looking at our boat papers and stamping a form, and asking for a propina (tip). I gave him one-hundred pesos, as did Carl. But at least we were healthy…
The next stop was the airport for customs and agriculture. We needed to take a taxi, as it was too far to walk. After wandering around inside, we found the customs and agriculture windows. When we reported in, the customs officer claimed that they had come out to our boats the day before, but no one was aboard. This wasn’t true, as Carl’s parents had stayed on board while we were at the Port Captain’s office. After some discussion, the customs office and agriculture inspector said they would need to come and inspect the boats. We explained that we were anchored, and that they would have to wade out to the dinghy, which they said they would do. We were hoping that this difficulty would persuade them to drop the inspection, but no luck. They said that they would meet us at the Port Captain’s office in twenty minutes.
We then found out that only a select (as in expensive) taxis departed from the airport, and they wanted $20 per person for the short ride! We decided to walk off of the airport grounds to find a normal cost taxi, which we managed to do. Carl and I would meet the inspectors while the rest of the gang went for lunch. We waited close to an hour before the inspectors arrived, in a brand new expensive truck, and in their uniforms. We took them out to the dinghy where they waded on board, and they started on Wildcat first. After about twenty minutes, Carl radioed me that they were ready. I picked them up and we went to Tropical Blend. The customs officer was pretty quick – he asked questions about weapons, and quickly stamped the form. However, the agriculture officer was much more painful. On Wildcat, Carl told me that she had seized the little amount of meat that they had on board – some hot dogs and lunch meat of questionable quality. First she asked about the cat, and I showed her his papers. She said that was okay, but that we must keep him on board. Next she looked at our refrigerators and the big freezer in the pilothouse. It was still pretty well stuffed from Panama and Roatan. She told me that normally it wasn’t legal to import meat into Mexico, especially since we had repackaged it into freezer bags. I explained where we had bought it, and asked if we could keep it. She finally agreed but said that she would need to confiscate the fresh produce that we had brought with us from Belize. This was a pretty good bargain, so I agreed. Now she had meat from Wildcat, and produce from us for dinner that night. Armed with our stamped forms, we took the officers back to shore and went to the Port Captain’s office to pay our fees. Remember that they close at 3:00, and that they told us we could pay them directly. Well, we got to the office at 2:45, and they were already starting to close. We showed them our forms, and we asked to pay. Now they told us that it was too late to pay them, and that we would have to wait until the morning. To emphasize the point, they unplugged the credit card machine in front of us. We asked again, saying that we needed to leave the next morning, but they were unrelenting. They said we would have to come back the next morning at 9:00. Totally aggravated, we left to find our shipmates and to drown our sorrows. Later that night, we hoisted Little Blend back to the boat deck. We were rolling pretty badly, so we asked Carl to help us. By holding lines both fore and aft, were able to get the dinghy up to the boat deck without incident.
The next morning, at a little before 9:00, Carl and I went on Wildcat’s dinghy to the Port Captain’s office. Then they told us that we couldn’t pay them and that we’d have to go to a bank. It seemed that they were just screwing with us. I asked them how we could pay the bank – wouldn’t we need to take some paperwork, so the bank could show that we had paid. It took me three efforts at this before they finally produced yet another form that the bank would stamp. By now I was beyond here, if you know what I mean. We walked as fast as we could to the bank, and we were able to pay with the pesos that we had on us. Carl, ever the Good Samaritan, decided to help a couple that was there trying to exchange some euros into pesos. They were Germans from a cruise ship, and they left their passports on board, so the bank wouldn’t make the exchange. They gave their euros to Carl so he could make the exchange for them. I was getting really concerned about the time, as we needed to arrive in Isla Mujeres before dark.
Now armed with our final stamped form from the bank, we once again hustled back to the Port Captain’s office where we FINALLY got our entry document. After this horrendous experience, I would never, ever recommend that any boater check in at Cozumel.
December 5th: Cozumel – Marina Puerto Isla Mujeres
A little after 10:00, we hoisted anchor and set off for Isla Mujeres. We were hoping that the rumored Yucatan current would propel us along speedily, and it didn’t disappoint. The current pushed north at between two and three knots, enabling us to make eight to nine knots at a reasonable RPM. Relieved that we could arrive during daylight, we settled back to enjoy the smooth and fast cruise up the Mayan Riviera.
Once we entered the channel between Cancun and Isla Mujeres, the marine traffic was dense, with a mixture of ferries, party boats, and private yachts. Once we cleared that minefield, we had to work our way back to Marina Puerto Isla Mujeres, which is in a lagoon inside the island. There is a passage that might have been deep enough for a short cut, but we weren’t willing to chance it. So, we had to go to the north end of the island, cut across the top of the outer lagoon while avoiding sand bars, then work our way south towards the inside lagoon while avoiding the numerous boats that were anchored directly in the channel. For the most part, the charts were accurate, but we really had to feel our way in through the sandbars. Wildcat stopped at the fuel dock while we proceeded to the slip. This was the first time I had ever docked stern to with pilings, and I swore the slip was way to narrow. The dockhand assured me that it was more than wide enough, and once I got between them, I saw what he meant. For some reason the space between pilings looks very narrow from a distance. We docked without further incident. The docks were in decent shape, made of wood. There was power, but the water was not potable. For the most part, the marina was deserted, and would not be busy until after the holidays.
Position at destination: 21°14.107’ N, 86°44.253’ W
Air temp: 77°, Humidity: 43%, Water temp: 81.5°
Nautical miles for this leg: 45.6; Total 6019
Departed at 10:10am, arrived at 4:45pm
December 5th – 10th: Marina Puerto Isla Mujeres
We checked in at the hotel office, and we immediately observed, and felt, the hordes of mosquitoes that came out at dusk. The showers, located in a small building near the docks, were full of them. We closed up the boat to keep them out, and then we joined the crew of Wildcat for dinner at a nearby restaurant. Glad to be free of the check-in cha-cha at Cozumel, we had a great dinner at the small restaurant (Green Verde) that specialized in molé sauces. It was great to be eating real Mexican meals again.
The next day, we ventured in to town. Candace was looking for a dress for their holiday party. Rosé ended up being the only one to buy a dress, and it was at maybe the only store in a tourist area in Mexico that refused to bargain. They had a sign indicating the prices were fixed, but I tried to bargain anyway. They wouldn’t budge even when we walked out of the door. But Rosé really liked the dress, planning to wear it for our family Christmas dinner, so we went ahead and bought it. You can’t put a price on a wife’s happiness. There was some kind of Virgin Mary parade going through downtown, typical of Mexico. After the shopping expedition and a late lunch, we returned to the marina to enjoy the pool. The pool area had a ton of iguanas roaming around it. The water in the pool felt cold, and we made bets about the actual temperature. I measured it at 81.5°, which surprised all of us; no one thought it was above 80°. I guess we had gotten spoiled by the very warm water off of Central America.
Carl and Candace were in a hurry to get to Florida because of his office Christmas party, so they decided to take their chances with the weather. Crossing the Yucatan channel and the Straits of Florida can be very treacherous in winter, if there is a north wind opposing the strong current of the Gulf Stream. While the forecast wasn’t dire, we wanted to wait for a better window, and we paid a weather router to work it up for us. We didn’t really need to be in Key West until the 15th, so we had some flexibility. Wildcat decided to leave on Sunday the 7th, so they checked out on Saturday the 6th. Since the port offices were closed, they were charged double for overtime (even though they never saw the Port Captain), and had to pay an agent $50 to take care of immigration for them. We said goodbye to them on Sunday morning – we really enjoyed cruising with them.
While waiting for the weather to improve, we spent a few lazy days doing not so much. We knew there was a Costco in Cancun, so we took the ferry over one afternoon. While waiting, Rosé found a bikini that she really liked in the ferry gift shop for just the equivalent of $16 – you can’t beat that. Before jumping on the ferry, we used an ATM at a bank across the street. Once in Cancun, we took a taxi to Costco, and had lunch at a restaurant just across the street. When we went to pay, I realized that I had left my ATM card in the machine in Isla Mujeres, so I had to call B of A to cancel it and order a new one – d’oh! We hoped to pick up some meds at Costco, but they didn’t have what we needed. We also discovered that our card had expired. I really thought that I had renewed it when I went to Florida back in August, but apparently not. They told us that they could not renew our card, and that we would have to get a new one. We ended up with a Mexican Costco card that was supposed to be good at all Costco’s.
The other task we needed to take care of before we returned to the USA was to get a new Certificate of Health for Quincy. I found a vet’s office in Isla Mujeres that also doubled as a cat shelter. They had some really cute and rambunctious cats there, but we were already spoken for. We had an appointment, but the vet was dealing with an emergency – someone’s dog had fallen from the second story of their apartment. He apologized to us, but we had no problem at all with his taking care of that emergency. When we did see him, we explained what we needed – a rabies vaccination and a health certificate. In his opinion, a cat of Quincy’s age should not be getting a rabies vaccination, especially because he never leaves the boat. He printed up a new certificate for us that did indicate a current vaccination, and he gave Quincy some IV fluids and some vitamin B. Unlike the other vets, he administered this while Quincy was still in his carrier, which really seemed to reduce the stress. He only charged us 200 pesos, so we gave him an additional 200 pesos as a donation for the cat shelter.
Since diesel fuel was only $4.00 per gallon (oil prices were just starting to fall), we decided to pick up two-hundred gallons as a safety measure. We had about two-hundred gallons left on board, which would be plenty more than enough, but we didn’t want to have to think about it. After fueling, we tried to pay using our Capital One card. We use that one because it does not charge a foreign exchange fee. Unfortunately, the charge would not go through. We tried a couple of more times with no success. We then tried a Chase card that also has no foreign exchange fee, but it didn’t work either. This was very strange, as we had not had any credit card problems since our initial entry to Mexico a year earlier. I called Capital One, and got on the line with someone in their fraud department to convince them this was a legitimate charge. She told me to have the fuel dock try again, but then after the attendant had swiped the card, she told me to tell him to enter it manually. By that time, some automatic algorithm flagged the card as stolen and killed it. Even the agent on the line couldn’t do anything about it. I get that banks want fraud protection, but that was absurd. We ordered a new card, and discussed other options with the fuel dock. They suggested we try an American Express card, processed by the hotel office, which finally worked.
The final step was to check out. We elected not to use an agent, as we understood all we had to do was go to the Port Captain’s office, pay the port fees, then to immigration, and back to the Port Captain for our exit Zarpe. The two locations were close by, so we had no problem taking care of business. Except for that change thing. Mexico is largely a cash-driven economy, but no one ever seems to have change. I think our port fees were around 260 pesos, but we only had a 500 peso note. Of course, the officer told us they didn’t have change. Fortunately for us, there was an Italian couple in the office checking out, and they were able to provide change to us.
December 11th – 13th: Isla Mujeres – Key West
We left at 4:00AM, counting on an average speed of six knots. We knew that we would be in the Gulfstream for at least some of the journey, but according to our weather router, it would be located further south than normal during our passage. We were expecting reasonable seas, around three to four feet, off of our bow for most of the trip. During both nights, we saw a lot of cruise ships on their way back to Florida, but very few cruising yachts. The temperature cooled down and we ran the boat from the pilothouse all of the way. As we approached Key West, we started to see a lot of fishing boats. As we entered Key West harbor, marine traffic was really heavy. We would be staying at the Conch Harbor Marina in the Key West Bight. It was another fixed-dock marina with pilings, but I was more prepared and anchored with ease. This was the longest passage we had made, at three-hundred and forty-seven knots, taking fifty-eight hours.
Position at destination: 24°33.757’ N, 81°47.998’ W
Air temp: 82°, Humidity: 68%, Water temp: 75°
Nautical miles for this leg: 347.4; Total 6367
Departed at 4:00am, arrived at 2:00pm
December 13th – 29th: Conch Harbor Marina, Key West
Check-in cha-cha, American style
The first order of business after checking in with the marina was to enter the USA with customs. Before we left Mexico, I had attempted to buy the decal required for checking in online, but the website was terrible, and I could not get it done. We called CBP to report our arrival, and they gave us an identification number with instructions to report to their office in person. The marina told us that we could go to the Federal Building just a few blocks away. We were also advised not to take our mobile phones, as they were not allowed in the building. We walked over to the building, where of course we found it was locked up tight for the weekend. Someone there told us that there was no Customs office and that we would need to go to the airport. We flagged down a taxi for the airport, and we found it was a fixed rate of $20 to the airport. Once we got to the airport, we found the CBP office located in a trailer, but it was also locked up tight. On the door it had a phone number to call, but of course we didn’t have our phones with us. Next to the CBP was a Sheriff’s office, so we went in to ask about the hours of CBP, where we were told they were gone. This didn’t make sense, as we had been advised when we called in that we had until 8:00PM.
So we took a taxi back to the marina, and called the reporting number again. They confirmed that the office would be open until 8:00, and we explained that it was locked up. They called the office for us, and told us to go back out again. So, it was in to another taxi, and another $20, to the airport. This time the officers did come and open the door. They asked us about the decal, and I explained that I had attempted to get it online without success. I think they had some sympathy for us due to the problems getting in to the office, so they waived the decal requirement. It’s only good for the calendar year, anyway. We filled out the basic customs form, and the only question they asked us was if we had any garbage on board from overseas – very strange. We were finally checked in; not as difficult as Cozumel, but pretty aggravating, and $60 in cab fare.
The next day we found a West Marine literally a block from the marina, and we were like kids in a candy store. We picked up a number of things that decided we needed, and some things that just seemed like we should have on board, including paper charts of The Bahamas. We ended up spending around $1000 at the West Marine and another nearby chandlery. We also did some major provisioning at the Publix Supermarket – it was great to have the variety and prices of an American grocery store again.
Christmas vacation in Key West
We would spend a little more than two weeks in Key West. We had wanted to stay through the New Year, but the rates for the week between Christmas and New Year were insane at $4.75 per foot per day. We had family coming in to visit us for Christmas – my mother and brother, and Rose’s sister Susie. They would be gone by December 27th, so we decided to leave on the 29th. Susie stayed on board with us, and my mother and brother stayed in a condo in the Truman Annex, within walking distance of our marina. We did rent a car for the week they would be visiting us. It was a mostly fun family visit, and we were glad that we hosted everyone. After all of the family had left, we got a visit from my friend from San Jose, Raphael, and his family. They were passing through on a cruise ship, and it was great to see them again.
The marina had a small pool at it, but the water was really cold. Despite this, we did spend several afternoons poolside. The marina itself was fairly nice, but there was a significant tide at around three and a half feet, which made boarding a challenge at times with the fixed docks. The harbor (Key West Bight) was extremely busy, with a lot of commercial operators, and dinghies coming and going from the boats anchored outside of the marinas. The first night, there was a lighted boat parade and contest, and some of them were quite elaborate.
Other highlights for us included our first Five Guys burgers since leaving San Jose – yum! We took the family up to Marathon for a Christmas lunch, after having a fabulous Christmas Eve dinner at the A&B Lobster House. The ladies had many marathon shopping adventures on Duval Street. We also had some great Chinese food for the first time in quite a while. As much as we enjoyed our cruises through Latin America, we were pretty happy to be back in the USA. The family left a few days after Christmas, and we prepared to cruise up to North Palm Beach.
December 29th: Conch Harbor Marina – Niles Channel, Florida Keys
We had arranged to be in the Old Port Cove Marina in North Palm Beach on January 5th, where we had have some significant refit work done by Yacht Tech, the largest Nordhavn service yard on the east coast. We planned to key hop for a few days before entering the Intracoastal Waterway to cruise from Miami to North Palm Beach. Our first stop was the Stock Island Marina, just a little north of Key West. They had the best fuel prices in South Florida at that time, so we picked up six-hundred gallons at $3.33 per gallon. Cruising up the keys, we ran in to a minefield of crab pots. They were randomly spaced and everywhere. We tried running a little further out, but they were still there. We had to stay on top of the wheel at all times to avoid them. We were fishing, and eventually lost a lure while zig-zagging between them. After that, we gave up on fishing. There was a steady stream of boats coming down to Key West for the New Year, most of them large motor yachts. They didn’t seem to vary their course at all as they plowed along at fifteen to thirty knots – we guessed they didn’t care if they ran over the pots. At one time, we saw a small boat ahead of us that was apparently checking the pots. We avoided that boat and the nearby pots, only to get an angry hail on channel 16: “you’re running over my traps!” I responded that we were seeing and avoiding them, and then the asshole called back and said, “How many have you run over so far!” Like the terminator, I considered several response options, all of them containing obscene language. But since we were on a distress hailing channel, I simply shouted back, “zero!” What a jerk – he apparently thought that he owned the ocean. Early in the afternoon, we made our way into Niles Channel, a calm and protected anchorage where we were the only boat.
Position at destination: 24°37.575’ N, 81°25.131’ W
Air temp: 84°, Humidity: 68%, Water temp: 78°
Nautical miles for this leg: 28.2; Total 6395
Departed at 8:45am, arrived at 2:15pm
December 30th: Niles Channel – Long Key
Our next stop was Long Key, past Marathon. We had considered stopping in Marathon, but it sounded too difficult. You have to take a mooring in the harbor, and you can’t reserve them. We figured at this time of year, they would be full. Plus, getting in to the harbor isn’t exactly easy for deep-draft boats. We had a vacation in Marathon years earlier, so we didn’t feel a need to go there. Once again we had to navigate the minefield of crab pots both in the main channel and getting to our anchorage. It’s too bad that those pots aren’t at least on an orderly string, instead of their random placements. While we were passing by the Seven Mile Bridge, we picked up some radio transmissions from the Coast Guard, who were stopping and inspecting boats in the area. We were hoping to avoid this – there is nothing wrong or illegal about our boat and its safety gear, but we didn’t want to go through the hassle. Fortunately, as we got close to them, some fool radioed them and asked if they wanted to inspect him. We arrived at the Long Key anchorage by mid-afternoon, and felt our way into the very shallow area.
Position at destination: 24°49.830’ N, 80°47.623’ W
Air temp: 86°, Humidity: 57%, Water temp: 79°
Nautical miles for this leg: 41.2; Total 6436
Departed at 8:30am, arrived at 3:15pm
December 31st: Long Key – Rodriguez Key
The next key we hopped to was Rodriguez Key, located near Key Largo. We were selecting our anchorages by using the reviews from Active Captain – there is a huge user database on South Florida and the Keys. While again successfully avoiding the crab pot mines, we anchored near Rodriguez Key in about eight feet of water. We took the dinghy over to the Mandalay Restaurant for lunch, as we had arrived at this anchorage before noon. After a tasty meal, we toured around the area a bit – it’s very well-developed. This was a nice way to conclude our 2014 cruising adventures. We had enough Internet access on our T-Mobile phone to find a few possible places in Palm Beach to stay at while we were getting our refit work done.
Position at destination: 25°03.821’ N, 80°27.360’ W
Air temp: 79°, Humidity: 66%, Water temp: 78°
Nautical miles for this leg: 27.6; Total 6464
Departed at 7:15am, arrived at 11:45am