Be Flexible

For years I have dreamed about visiting Mayan ruins — ever since I dug up that first tooth in my mother’s flowerbed at the age of 10. I thought I had found some wonderful artifact, but it was, in fact, an old cow’s tooth. Our property used to be pastureland. Oh well. I was still interested in archaeology and decided one day I would immerse myself in history. Tulum, about 80 miles south of Cancun on the Yucatan peninsula and until the 1960s accessible only by sea, seemed like the place to start. Chuck and I pored over the charts of the Mexican coast to decide our next stop after Punta Maroma. The number of good and accessible anchorages is few and far between on this part of the coast and getting caught in the wrong place in bad weather here can be downright dangerous.

Our weather reports indicated very light winds and no rain for the next several days. We had heard from a number of people that the anchorage at Tulum had poor holding and was good only in settled weather. Still, after talking to the vessel, Nueva Vida, on the SSB one morning and getting waypoints and a thumbs-up on the weather, Chuck agreed to go there.
We were told the reef pass was easy to navigate and the holding was better than at Punta Maroma. The ruins of Tulum sit up on a hill directly on the Caribbean Sea in Mexico.

Charting a course
Before we leave even for a daysail, my job is to get out the charts and plot our waypoints, being careful to ensure our course line does not go over any hazards or shoal spots. I draw lines with the parallel rulers between the waypoints, and measure and label the distance and compass heading, noting whether the course is magnetic or true. Sometimes we use the GPS in true mode to navigate to our waypoints. The waypoints are then written in the top of our logbook for that day and entered into the GPS to determine our route for this leg of the passage.

I picked a waypoint a bit offshore to stay away from the reefs, but remain close enough into shore to avoid the counter current. The waypoint was a half-mile or so from the reef pass. The next waypoint would be just outside the reef at Tulum and the last where we passed through the reef. From there, we would just turn north and run parallel to the beach, as instructed by the guidebook.

Making way without wind
We had little wind the morning we left Punta Maroma. We’d had a nice time there, but it was definitely time to head farther south. After crossing our earlier waypoint outside the reef, we turned to head southwest toward Tulum. We motorsailed all day, never having enough wind from the right direction to turn the engine off. Any time the engine is running for a period of time, it is our practice to do a visual inspection of the engine compartment and bilge every two hours, and make a note in the log. While cruising along like this it is customary for us to stream a fishing line behind the boat. Chuck will decide what lure he thinks will attract the fish that day, and put it over the side. We have a rod holder secured to the starboard stanchion amidships. Once the line is let out about 100 feet, Chuck ties the rod to the holder. It didn’t take long and we were reeling in a nice plump little blue fin tuna for dinner.

It was a beautiful sunny day and by mid-afternoon or so, the ruins of Tulum began to appear in the distance. I got the binoculars out and tried to make out the different buildings.

Navigating the pass
As we got closer, we realized a sailboat was heading north and about to enter the reef pass as well. Lady Galadriel had been a vessel we spoke to on the Northwest Caribbean Net on 8188 a number of times in the morning. Being polite, we told them to go ahead and go first. OK, so I’m a chicken. I wanted to follow someone else in. This time, Chuck stayed at the helm and I crawled up on the main boom to get a better look at the bottom as we came through the reef.
The “flat awash rock” reported in the reef break was somewhat visible and right where it was supposed to be. The reef pass was much wider than I had imagined. I always have these visions in my head of going through these narrow passes with 2 feet on either side of the boat and big aggressive coral reaching up to hole the hull.

In reality, the pass was probably 100 yards across. Once we cleared the reef Chuck turned to starboard and began to head north toward the ruins.

Lady Galadriel made her turn again to starboard and was preparing to anchor just behind the reef. We passed well behind them to stay out of their way, and went a little further down the beach. At that point, we switched positions and I was back on the helm to anchor. We then turned toward the reef and dropped the hook.

Pitching and rolling
After our usual routine of dropping anchor, paying out a good deal of chain, letting it settle, then backing down, we realized it was not holding. We pulled up, found a sandier patch, dropped the hook a second time and got it to hold.

That’s when we realized we had a problem. No, nothing was wrong with the boat, the engine, or the sails, it was the anchorage. The wind had died down leaving us sideways in the swells; we were rolling, pitching and yawing like crazy.

Lady Galadriel had asked us to stop by for a visit before we realized what kind of anchorage this was. We called them back on the VHF and politely declined. It was actually too rough to launch the dinghy from the davits and, at one point, Chuck asked me to cook dinner earlier than usual because he thought if he waited any longer, he might be seasick. We considered a stern anchor to keep us bow to the swells, but decided against that because of the rocky bottom. Plus our secondary anchor is rode with a short piece of chain, so we might have a problem with the line chafing through from the motion.

The problem here is that the reef is too shallow to break up the swells as they roll in toward the beach. They come unimpeded for hundreds of miles and, unless it has been flat calm for many days, this anchorage would not be comfortable. The difference between here and Punta Maroma was that the reef there was higher and actually almost dried at low tide. We had even tried to get behind a patch of reef that we thought was breaking more than the rest, to no avail. At this point I realized I would not be seeing Tulum on this trip. The word “untenable” comes to mind. If this is considered a fair-weather anchorage we could only imagine what it must be like in a hard blow with large seas.

Reality and the rules
I sat out in the cockpit until sunset and looked at the spectacular view of the beach, huts, ruins and people frolicking. There was a small palapa-style restaurant right on the beach. It was a beautiful place and we were saddened to know we could not spend one more night in this place. If we stayed to visit the ruins the next day we would not be able to get out in good light. The rolling continued all night and moving about below was quite an exercise in balance. We got up at sunrise, raised the anchor and made all due haste to the reef opening as soon as we had light enough to see it. I think next time I will follow the advice of other cruisers who stayed the night at Puerto Aventuras, a marina about 20 miles North of Tulum, and take the bus to the ruins. Live and learn the hard way, I always say. But enjoying ourselves while cruising means sticking to two important rules: Never keep a schedule and always be flexible.

As we left Tulum behind, for another time, we wondered what new experiences we would find at our next stop.

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