The Yucatan Channel is rarely sailed by visiting cruisers, but Kila Zamana discovered wilderness and Maya myths

Key West, at the southernmost tip of the United States, is a place of non-conformists, colour and curiosities. Arriving at night, I spotted the Gunboat Traverse resting peacefully on the dock in front of a row of classic white and pastel-hued houses. It too was quite different, standing out from the other boats thanks to its unique shape and hull paint: as incongruous as a crystallised blue glacier.

This 48ft Gunboat is a rare breed: just six were built between 2004 and 2009 as part of a Morrelli & Melvin project to create a performance catamaran suitable for short-handed sailing.

This was going to be a new experience for me. Previously I’d spent four years sailing on the 50ft steel expedition sloop Malaika in stormy European Atlantic waters. Until that point, performance yachts like this had only existed vaguely in my imagination.

Traverse’s owner, Daniel, hid his amusement at my awe-struck expression as I stepped aboard. But I didn’t want to acknowledge my feelings, so instead I pulled out my computer on which I had outlined the passage plan. “Shall we begin?”

Opposing currents

Traverse would take us on a crossing of the Yucatan Channel, which has a reputation for confused seas with currents coming from all directions. The Yucatan current flows from the north, the Gulf Stream flows from the south into the Gulf of Mexico, while prevailing easterlies and tides push in from Cuba. Also resisting forces from all directions, most of the people of the region refer to themselves as indigenous Yucatecans rather than Mexican (just as most Alaskans identify as Alaskan, not American) because of the Maya’s rise to fight for their independence against Mexico and US influences.

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Unlike the Pacific coast of Mexico, the Caribbean shore is not a popular sailing area and east Mexico waters are not well charted for foreign cruisers. Everything below the port of entry, Isla Mujeres, lacks decent information. So the next morning the chart table was covered with maps, the pilot book Cruising Guide to Belize and Mexico’s Caribbean Coast by Freya Rauscher, the plotter running Navionics, GRIB weather files, and laptops open at Noonsite and many tabs showing any cruisers’ forums we could find to glean local knowledge.

We’d be sailing with a crew of three: Daniel, his trusted friend Chris – who already knew this boat well – and myself. We all had very clear roles aboard Traverse: captain Daniel was responsible for major decisions, Chris for technical issues on the boat, while mine was executing the passage plan thanks to my experience leading expedition passages. Together we decided to mark Isla Mujeres as our first entry port on the plotter because it had the best reputation for check-in procedures.

Anchoring after making landfall in Bahia de la Ascension before sunset. Photo: Kila Zamana

Party central

At dawn we hoisted sail and set a course for a 350-mile ride, calculating that we should have 9-11 knots of boatspeed with winds blowing from east, and against the Gulf Stream, so our passage to Isla Mujeres should take no more than two nights.

On our first night as we sailed heading toward the Cuban shore, I stood watch under the luminous light of the moon and stars. It was a peaceful 8-knot ride with just the Solent and mainsail up.

Traverse could run much faster, easily hitting 14 knots with either the Code 0 or spinnaker, but we preferred a gentle ride over speed, especially at night. I spotted a strange star that seemed almost to follow us, until I realised it was a large, apparently quite advanced drone from Cuba.

Controls are led to the mast base and central cockpit on the Gunboat 48. Photo: Kila Zamana

The drone flew eerily over us, watching our little vessel all alone on the dark sea throughout the night.

Later, dry thunderstorm clouds started to form, slowly devouring the moonlight. One by one the starry constellations disappeared, the night becoming a black void, until lightning flashes marked the direction of our destination. Here was a sign we were entering the realm of Kukulcán, the famous feathered serpent god that created the rain, winds, and ruled thunderstorms on the seas according to ancient Maya myth.

Landfall is always exciting – especially when setting foot in a totally different country than the one you departed. Arriving in Mexico was no exception, and a sudden shift of atmosphere takes place as you enter Isla Mujeres through a narrow channel.

Clear skies at night. Photo: Kila Zamana

We were greeted with a huge parade of catamarans filled with cheerful tourists, apparently far exceeding the boats’ capacity, all spilling drinks with loud music blasting. We kept a watchful eye on the anarchy around us while picking our way through the canal’s shallows.

We took our mooring spot on the quay in the bushes – noting the signs warning us to keep a safe distance from the crocodile’s nest – and after two days of quarantine were cleared to leave the marina and explore the streets of Isla Mujeres. There’s an old fashioned tempo to the messy streets, colourful blocks of buildings with peeling faded paint are punctuated by mango stands, some covered with ants and cockroaches. It had the feel of a gritty crime movie set.

Heading south

After a couple of days acclimatising to the Mexican vibes, we prepared to sail further down the coast. I marked three ports to stop at, before our final destination in Bahia de la Ascension, including a planned trip inland at Puerto Morelos or Puerto Aventuras. But we were turned away from Puerto Morelos as anchoring wasn’t permitted, then Puerto Aventuras had no space for us, and there was radio silence at Cozumel when we tried to raise a response.

So we decided to sail instead to Bahia de la Ascension, then try some different stops on the way back.

Traverse was surfing smoothly over 12 knots on a broad reach, under just a Solent sail and first reef in 20 knots of wind with 4m waves pushing us along nicely. I decided to unfurl the Code 0, and here was my first mistake.

Spinnaker sailing from Key West to Isla Mujeres. Photo: Kila Zamana

Because of old habits formed sailing on an expedition yacht with heavy weather sails, I didn’t get the timing right, which caused the unfurling line to twist horribly on its drum.

With the sail stuck halfway, we went for a quick drop, but despite thinking that would be a pretty straightforward manoeuvre for three people, the sail blew forward into the confused water which sucked the sail under the two bows, and took us hours to get back on board.

Lesson learned, there are no shortcuts on a performance catamaran like this. Sometimes we have to make quite obvious mistakes to form better habits. For me, despite sailing 20,000 miles, mostly double-handed, I realised that there are certain skills that are non-transferable onto a totally different boat.

Shallow draught and lifting rudders allow the Gunboat to moor close to the shoreline. Photo: Kila Zamana

We’d lost a lot of time and now, every mile we sailed down the coast of the Yucatan, the slower we went. The Gulf Stream current against us was getting stronger, reducing our speed from 10 to 5.5 knots, and we were racing to make it to landfall before sunset.

My confidence knocked, I was now concerned that my plan of arriving into Bahia de la Ascension would be disastrous as we were sailing into unknown, murky waters along a wild and barren coastline with very limited information available.

The AIS showed absolutely no traffic at all which, while wonderful for seeking undisturbed tranquillity, left me feeling anxious – after all, no one sails here. I kept questioning if it was going to be a safe anchorage, even though the pilot book suggested it had good shelter – and wondering if the recorded depths would still be accurate in this giant lagoon.

However, it turned out to be a stellar decision. We dropped anchor just before sunset, in good holding despite the murky visibility.

Everything suddenly felt so light: constellations of stars began appearing thanks to the complete lack of light pollution that were brighter than anything I’ve seen. All overjoyed with our first night at anchor, we ate a delicious grilled dinner, enjoying good company, and the anticipation for the next day’s exploration.

Visiting Fort Jefferson by tender. Photo: Kila Zamana

We awoke to find ourselves in a vast, undeveloped nature reserve covered in jade green hues with faint scraps of land dotted on the horizon, surrounded by total silence. This is the Sian Ka’an biosphere, which means ‘where the sky is born’ in Maya. The reserve covers over 5,180km2 ranging from tropical forests to swamps to coral reefs which provide haven for more than 300 bird species, Caribbean manatee, crocodiles, black howler monkeys, tapirs, and even mighty jaguars.

We jumped into the dinghy intending to find a spot to snorkel and explore before searching for the island’s sole remote village called Punta Allen. Just before we started the outboard, an 8ft bull shark bumped alongside our dinghy. “Maybe we shouldn’t go swimming here,” Chris said, “let’s head to Punta Allen.”

Finding the real yucatan

While riding through mangroves on turquoise waters, we were passed by lobster fishermen on their boat and cautiously followed them, sensing that we’d find a settlement tucked in between the mangroves. But they glanced our way several times, making it clear we were not invited to trail them, so we decided instead to drop the dinghy on a beach and walk along a trail cut through dense jungle.

We walked and walked, my feet cut on the sharp jungle undergrowth, but when we eventually reached Punta Allen we found, not a sleepy fishing village with just a few lobster processing farms as the pilot book had described, but a hub of thatched lodges, cafes, and open-air restaurants welcoming visitors. It has a laid back vibe and is a beautiful example of the kind of sustainable tourism that is dramatically fading in the shadow of heavy hotel development. This was the Mexico we’d come in search of.

Picking a safe route through sand bars and coral. Chart information is limited. Photo: Kila Zamana

After two days exploring the mangroves, we returned north, heading into pretty strong northerlies. Even at 32°apparent wind angle, Traverse was reaching speeds of 14 knots with a favourable current.

Dry Tortugas

After two days of sporty upwind sailing, I heard a voice calling “Get up!” My deep sleep after standing a 0300-0600 watch was disturbed. I rushed out from my bunk, thinking something serious had happened.

“Look at that sunrise!” Daniel said.

“You… just woke me up for a sunrise?” I mumbled.

“It’s a special one!”

Punta Allen is a small community and is a beautiful example of the kind of sustainable tourism that is dramatically fading in the shadow of heavy hotel development Photo: Kila Zamana

I’ve seen thousands of sunrises and sunsets all over the Atlantic sky, so it’s not something I’d usually trade my sleep for. But this one really was quite special: a silhouette of a massive fortress was painted in the orange-pinkish hues of the sky, like a fantasy world.

This was Fort Jefferson, about 70 miles west of Key West, an unfinished fortress built atop a cluster of seven coral islands called the Dry Tortugas. It has a dark past, having served as a prison, as well as defence against piracy. Navigating through the jagged channel to the fort we could choose the anchor spot closest to the fort’s incredibly photogenic shoreline thanks to the Gunboat’s shallow draught and lifting rudders.

We took a two-mile dinghy ride to the decommissioned lighthouse on Loggerhead Key, until a solitary marine patrol insisted we return to the boat because of an approaching storm. We rushed back just before 45 knots hit us. It was an intense experience to ride out the squall at anchor so close to shore. After the storm the sea birds soared out from their nests as if on a secret signal. It was a sign for us to return too, back to Florida and Key West.

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