Log #54d Punta Allen to Chinchorro Bank – a perilous entry

March 29, 2012 in Log Series 50-59, Logs by Series, Series 54, The Logs

March 29, 2012


Hi Folks,

This log gets us down to the treacherous entry into an atoll off the Mexican coast. I felt the tension again as I was describing it. It is scary stuff when entering shoal waters with unreliable chart information.

I want to get this log off and start the next one. I was hoping to have them up to date so I would not need to have our log book and the pilot book back in Toronto, but I doubt if I will complete them before we leave next Monday morning, April 2. Our trip back will not be direct as we will take four days before getting to Toronto. We will spend a couple of days at Tikal and Flores here in Guatemala before catching a bus to Belize City, and another bus to the Cancun airport in Mexico from where we will fly directly to Toronto.

I hope you enjoy the log and pictures of the frigate birds and dolphins.

All the best,


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Log #54d Punta Allen to Chinchorro Bank – a perilous entry

Fronteras, Rio Dulce, Guatemala

March 28, 2012

We left Puerto Morelos at 1600 for the 83 mile passage, timing it so we would arrive in the morning of the next day. I enjoy night passages especially if we are offshore and do not have to do much fancy navigation. Veleda is good at holding a steady course and sailing herself, allowing the on watch person to enjoy the night stars, and just keeping an eye on things. We had a good sail wing on wing for the first few hours, then motor sailed the rest of the night to keep up our speed. We were outside the reef, and just before altering around Niccheban Reef towards Bahia de la Ascension we were visited by a pod of dolphins (see attached pictures) who played around in our bow wave for five minutes, frolicking back and forth happy to have a toy boat to swim around and to have Judy on the bow clapping for them and saying how lovely they are.

Log_54d_Dolphin_coming_over_to_play                     Log_54d_Dolphin_playing_in_our_bow_wave

We altered course to give the two mile long sand bar at the tip of the peninsula a wide berth, and then up inside to anchor behind the peninsula behind Puerto Allen (19 46.116N, 087 29.070W) by 1045 next morning.

Bahia de la Ascencion is a large (6 by 10 mile) shallow (8 to 12 feet) bay with a set of small islands called the Culebra Cays in the middle. We dinghied two miles around the tip of the peninsula to the primitive village of Puerto Allen, a village of a couple hundred souls and a few back packer hostels. We saw several lanchas taking people out into the Bahia at high speeds to visit the off lying islands and the mangrove bays. We enquired and took a lancha with just the two of us out to the Culebra Cays and a most enjoyable snorkel on a lively reef off the town. The reef was quite active with colourful tropical fish and stag and brain coral heads. For the first time we saw a few of the notorious lionfish, their poisonous spined fins wafting gently, keeping them stationary beneath a coral head. We reported them to the guide, as there is a program to identify how far they have spread, and to get rid of them, as they are a menace to other fish and sea life, with no local predators to keep their numbers in check. It was a good and interesting trip.

Next day we went over to the town to buy a bag of four lobsters , enough for two good meals, for about $10.00 from the local Co-Op. Then we motored over to the Culebra Cays with Veleda to anchor for the night (19 42.444N, 087 30.204W). We dinghied around the cays to see the frigate bird colony close up, the males displaying their red gullets in the mating dance, as we first saw in Barbuda north of Antigua eight years ago (see attached pictures).
It is a pleasure to watch these magnificent birds with over 2 metre (6 Feet) wing span gliding effortlessly on the breezes. They can stay aloft for days on end, hundreds of miles out to sea (even though they can not land on water).

We watched a glorious sunset, and at night saw a display of phosphorescence as fish swam by the boat trailing sparks like Tinkerbelle. (We can also see the phosphorescence in the hoses at night when pumping the heads – not as romantic though.)

Next day we weighed anchor at 0630 (sunrise was at 0621) to head 35 miles down to Bahia Del Espiritu Santo, another large bay behind a reef system. We wanted to anchor just behind Noja Reef, a breaking, crescent moon-shaped reef. However our GPS was woefully inaccurate in identifying the depths and reefs awash, and we had to feel our way in behind the reef, with our GPS saying we were going over drying shallows. Although we purchased the current chart chip for the GPS in Marathon in December, the charts on it, and on our computer charting system, for this area are very poor. We anchored behind the reef and set off in the dinghy to explore it. The area behind the reef was shallow, with depths between 12 to 2 feet, with a strong surge coming over the shallow coral. The coral behind it was not interesting as it was just the occasional dead head on the coarse sandy bottom. The heavy swell was most uncomfortable both in the dinghy and on Veleda at anchor. We wanted to get out of the swell, and headed into the bay hoping to go behind Owen Island. However as we felt our way through the shallows, we didn’t trust our GPS and the guide pilot book we were using did not reflect the shallow depths we were experiencing. We had no idea as to what depths we might experience in trying to go into the lee behind Owen Island. I did not want to go any further in and so we dropped anchor in the middle between the reefs and Owen Island in about eight feet of water. The water was calmer there and so we spent the night at anchor two miles from the nearest land (19 22.574N, 087 26.665W). Just before sunset a couple of native fishermen came by asking if we wanted any fish. No thanks but do you have lobster? Tomorrow morning OK? Early we said as we would be leaving before 0700. Sure enough, they showed up at 0700 and we got another half dozen lobster before shoving off at 0710. Mmmmm!

We had a great sail that day heading south with a north wind. Around noon, while trailing two lines, I saw a flash of a colourful fish dash across the lines, then both lines snapped tight. I hauled in the port line with great effort as the fish was a large one putting up quite a fight as I hauled it in hand over hand. It surged to starboard then to port behind the dinghy on its Dinghy Tow. It was a glorious dorado, a snub nosed multicoloured iridescent green and gold mahi mahi. As it darted to port, it freed itself from the hook and it escaped. I was glad it got away as it would have been too beautiful a fish to kill and fillet. I have only caught a couple of dorado and was saddened each time to see their vibrant colours fade into a dull green as they died. However I had another fish on the other line and hauled it in more easily. I had an 18 inch crevallis jack, good for a solid meal for the two of us. It appears that the jack took the line first and the dorado was after it and then went for my other lure. I’m still glad the dorado got away.

We continued sailing until a few miles from the large atoll of Chinchorro Bank when we dropped our sails and cautiously motored towards this, the only true atoll in Mexican waters. Chinchorro Bank is a kidney shaped atoll lying 18 nautical miles offshore, 26 miles long and up to 9.5 miles wide, surrounded on all sides by steep to reefs. There are only a few relatively narrow entrances into the atoll. As we approached from the north, we were once again aware the GPS was not reliable, as the entry lighthouse, which was hard to identify at a distance, was not in the same perspective as indicated on the GPS, and the guide book chartlet was again different from the GPS charts. The guide book put the lighthouse on the north end of Cayo Norte, an island a couple of miles inside. The GPS put the lighthouse on the port hand reef. There was a two mile wide opening between the crashing reefs, but our charts and GPS indicated ¾ of that opening on the starboard side were occupied by shallow reefs not showing on the surface.

We were quite nervous about our approach, as the wind was still up at 10 to 15 knots with two metre (6 foot) seas. Do we head for the lighthouse on the island or pass it to starboard if it is on the reef? Incidentally, we couldn’t see the reef itself, only the surging water thrashing over it. As we approached the depths went from 45 feet to 30, to 15, and as we thought we were entering the atoll with raging white water on both sides of us the depths dropped to 10 feet. One chart indicated a “coral garden” covering a couple of square miles to our port. Sounds nice and would be good snorkelling in calm weather, but we were afraid we might be skirting that area with 8 to 10 foot depths, and coral heads coming up 4 to 6 feet from the bottom. Do the math! Ten feet of water with a six foot rock leaves only four feet, and our draft is four and a half feet, not taking into consideration the four to six foot swells.

We weren’t exactly sure whether we were inside the atoll or not, until the seas moderated a bit and we were able to identify the lighthouse was indeed on the end of the island Cayo Norte. The wind was still up and we headed down the island, hoping to get into a bit of a lee (protected from the wind). It was not to be, as we motored down the depths got shallower and we had to drop anchor still exposed to the wind in 8 feet of water (18 44.810N, 087 18.443W). We trust our anchor even in heavy winds, as once it has set it stays secure in most conditions. Once Veleda had settled to her anchor by 1630, we shut the engine off and breathed a sigh of relief.

We were inside what should have been the “romantic” setting of a tropical atoll. In calm weather that would apply. In heavy weather with uncertain charts, narrow shoal-studded entrances and thrashing waters pounding over shallow reefs, such atolls are treacherous navigational hazards. Needless to say, there was not another boat at anchor or in sight. We had it all to ourselves … for a while, until a navy open boat came around the island to check our papers. No problem, and they were friendly. After they left as dark set in, the winds picked up to force 6 and 7, near gale force, at 25 to 30 knots. Our anchor held OK, but the winds were so strong that for a while I had the engine on trying to motor into the wind to reduce the strain on the anchor. Actually this technique does not work well, as it causes the boat to swing more as the wind hits it on one side, then motoring towards it, hits the bow on the other side. After 20 minutes I gave up and turned the engine off, and just trusted our 45 pound claw anchor which held well throughout the night. Welcome to our first atoll!