Log #54a Dry Tortugas to Isla Mujeres, Mexico

March 18, 2012 in Log Series 50-59, Logs by Series, Series 54, The Logs

Fronteras, Rio Dulce, Guatemala

March 18, 2012

Hi Folks,


This log is the first of series #54 now that we have left the U.S.

We are finally here in the Rio Dulce of Guatemala where we will leave our boat in the next week or so to head back to Toronto. The specific location has yet to be determined, as we will be looking around at the various marinas and other long term storage arrangements. We have not been in such a river system since the Manamo River in Venezuela, complete with members of the local indigenous Mayan tribes paddling out in their dugout canoes to greet us. We are 24 miles upstream behind a couple of mountain ranges, well protected from any hurricanes that may come this way. The temperatures are quite hot, 28 to 32 C (80 to 90 F), but there is usually a good breeze. There are many Canadian and U.S. boats here as well as a few from Europe. Most of the marinas are run by Canadian or American expats.

I have attached several pictures from Fort Jefferson and a couple of maps from our pilot book, Cruising Guide to Belize and Mexico’s Caribbean Coast showing our track and the tracks of the Gulf Stream encountered on our way from the Dry Tortugas to Mexico.

Right now we are anchored off Tortugal Marina, where I can access the internet to send this off.

Please let me know you are getting my logs as I have not heard from many of you for months. I will start a new log address list after I am caught up with my logs to date before returning to Toronto. It would be good to see some of you when we are back.

All the best,


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Log #54a Dry Tortugas to Isla Mujeres, Mexico

Cabos Tres Puntas, Guatemala

March 14, 2012

This is the first log of the #54 series about our time in Central America from Mexico to Belize and Guatemala. This log gets us to the Dry Tortugas, our last stop in the U.S., and our passage to Isla Mujeres, Mexico. It is being started in Cabo Tres Puntas, our first anchorage in Guatemala.

We anchored in Garden Key of the Dry Tortugas (24 37.597N, 082 52.299W) at 1245 on Jan. 18, after an arduous passage from Key West of only 60 miles.


(Incidentally, Key West is at mile 1240 from the start of the ICW at Mile 0 at Norfolk, Virginia.) Such a transit should have taken only 12 hours, but due to the fouling of our prop from repeated fish trap buoys, and anchoring in mid passage in order to be able to see these navigational hazards in the morning, it took 30 hours. We could not sail directly to the Garden Key anchorage as we had to sail around the entire Fort Jefferson complex in order to avoid shoals and other shallows surrounding this interesting historical group of islands.

The Dry Tortugas are the westernmost of the Florida Keys, with only the Marquesas Keys (which we bypassed) between them and Key West. They became U.S. territory with the purchase of Florida from Spain in 1821. In 1846 the mighty Fort Jefferson was started (for 30 years) but never completed as the technology of naval warfare and gunnery made it ineffective because of rifled cannon shot which could easily demolish the sides of such masonry fortifications. During the Civil War it was used as a notorious prison, the most famous prisoner being Dr. Samuel Mudd, the physician who treated John Wilkes Booth after the assassination of Lincoln. There is an interesting question as to whether he was a co-conspirator or just an ethical physician who treated a wounded man brought to him. He was very helpful at the prison for his efforts to combat the yellow fever which overwhelmed the garrison and took many lives there. He was pardoned two years after, in 1867.

It was also used as a coaling station, and remembered as the last coaling stop for the USS Maine which sank in Havana harbour, the pretext for the Spanish American War.


In 1992 the entire area was dedicated as the Dry Tortugas National Park, and the fortifications are open to tourists who arrive by private boat such as us and a few other boats anchored there, and tour boats or float planes that make daily runs from Key West. Architecturally it is a dramatic structure, with hundreds of empty gun ports and the perspectives looking down the arched passageways of the gun platforms (see attached pictures).

Log_54a_Arches_along_gun_platforms_ofFort_Jefferson                       Log_54a_Perspectives_down_Fort_Jefferson_corridors

This was our second time here, the first when we came down the Mississippi and in early 1999 sailed across the Gulf Coast to Key West and the Dry Tortugas before sailing over to Cuba, only 90 miles away.

Another Canadian sailboat, Adriana 1, came in, looking for an area to drop his pick amongst the five boats already at anchor. I directed him into an inner location where we saw a boat anchored the previous day, and knew he would have enough draft for it. Later, Bill and Shawnie came over to thank us for the assistance, and to ask if I was the writer of the articles, Pearls from the Logs of Veleda IV, published periodically in GAM, a Canadian sailing magazine. Yes, that’s me. Quite frequently, in many distant ports, I have met other Canadians and some other nationalities who have read my articles. The most remote location where somebody recognized me as the author of such articles was over in Balaclava, Ukraine, where people on a Scandinavian boat there complimented me on the logs. Bill and Shawnie were heading back to Key West next day, and did us the favour of taking a bag of our garbage back, as there is no garbage collection available in the Dry Tortugas, and we didn’t want to start a major passage across to Mexico with a full bag of garbage occupying space in the cockpit or in our dinghy. Thanks Bill for taking our garbage back.

We dinghied around Garden Key and the frigate bird rookery on Bush Island. I scampered around the fort taking pictures of the perspectives and the golden glow on the brickwork near sunset. We talked with a couple of other boaters who were headed to Mexico. We were undecided whether we wanted to go to Cuba first and along the Cuban coast to Cabo San Antonio on the northwest tip of Cuba before crossing the Yucatan current to the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico.

Our destination was Isla Mujeres off Cancun on the east coast of the peninsula. We know there is a current generated in the western Caribbean, coming north up the Yucatan and across the north coast of Cuba. This is the origin of the Gulf Stream current from the western Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico, north of Cuba, and up the east coast of the U.S. and across the Atlantic to the moderate the temperatures in the U.K. These currents would be against us on this passage.
We had considered going to Havana, and then along the north coast of Cuba to Cabo San Antonio, which would have reduced current flow or possibly put us into a counter current to help us. However the bureaucracy for checking in and out for only a few days of coastal cruising deterred us from actually landing in Cuba, as much as we like the country.

Two routes were under consideration. The fancy one, a zig zag course, was to go west from the Dry Tortugas along the edge of the current, then turn south to a few miles off the Cuban coast and go west along to Cabo San Antonio, then directly across the Yucatan Channel to Mexico, thus lessening the effect of the current by hugging the Cuban coast. The other was the rhumb line going straight to Isla Mujeres, hoping the current would not be too strong. The courses of these currents vary by 20 to 50 miles, the Yucatan Current sometimes going further up into the Gulf of Mexico before turning down and along the coast of Cuba, closer to the Cuban coast or midway between Cuba and the Keys (see attached map).

We weighed anchor from Garden Key at 1048 Jan. 20 for the 300 mile passage to Isla Mujeres (pronounced EEsla MOOhaires, the Island of Women) which is on the northern tip of the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico, on the east (Caribbean) side, off the tourist area of Cancun. (A yacht does not check out of the U.S.)The calculation of arrival time for such a passage is tricky. We want to arrive in daylight hours. At five knots average speed it would take 60 hours, or two and a half days. If we leave in the morning we should then arrive sometime in the afternoon two days later. But … we could not know how much the Gulf Stream current would slow our progress. If we had to alter our direct course to minimize the current by heading straight across to Cuba, that could add another 25 miles or more to our total distance. It would be nice to enter in daylight hours, but we could deal with a night time entry, especially if the winds were not too strong. We had the entry programmed into the GPS.

We took the rhumb line course (see attached map), keeping a close eye on our speed and the effect of any currents. On this straight line course of about 230T, we slowly angled southwest, having a good sail with easterly winds from 8 to 15 knots on a glorious run, wing on wing, with the wind just off our port quarter, allowing us to have the main out to starboard, held out with the preventer, and the genoa out to port with a whisker pole.


After seven hours of wing on wing, we dropped the whisker pole to go on a broad reach in a stronger force 5 (15 to 20 knots of wind) , still making good time of 5 ½ knots. During the first night we double reefed the main and reduced the genoa by 58% on the roller furling, a precaution we often take for night sailing. That first 24 hours we did 130 nautical miles.

The second day the wind dropped and we motor sailed for ten hours to keep up our speed of 5 knots. So far, so good, no appreciable current against us. The second night after midnight we sailed again for another 14 hours until our speed dropped to 2.5 knots as we crossed the Yucatan Current off Cabo San Antonio, Cuba. We then motor sailed for six hours while crossing the Yucatan Current in order to keep up at least 2.5 knots as we angled into the current which was flowing at about four knots due north.

We were out of the current by 2230 the third night (Jan. 22) and sailed, again at 5.5 knots, the last twenty miles to enter the channel to Isla Mujeres. We had to follow the channel closely as there are shoals and reefs along the entire Yucatan Peninsula almost as long as the Great Barrier Reef of Australia. Another night time entry!

We debated heaving to offshore to make the entry in daylight hours, but Judy felt we had enough information on our GPS plot to safely make it in the dark. We dropped the sails and motored the last hour, carefully following the GPS track. We were aware that some of the navigational lights and aids were unreliable, and so depended on the GPS and our eyes. The zig zag course to go between the openings in the reef was no problem, other than the final entry into the Bay behind Isla Mujeres. There was a large power yacht blocking the middle of the narrow channel! What was he doing there? It took a while to determine he was indeed at anchor and not making way. We tried to hail it on VHF, but got no answer. We very slowly motored up his port side, hoping we had enough water on that side of the narrow channel. He was right in the opening of the bloody channel at anchor! He must have been “chicken” to try a night entry and so dropped his anchor in mid channel. Poor, inconsiderate seamanship!

We wended our way into the wide bay to the far south end before the narrows, following the track of the GPS, often not seeing the unlit buoys until we were almost on them. Then when we were near our anchorage point, we saw two, then four yachts at anchor without anchor lights! We did not know how far out of the channel we could go, but felt our way slowly away from the yachts to finally drop anchor at 0230 on Jan. 23rd, in Isla Mujeres after a 62 hour passage of 305 nautical miles. It was nice to be still!